Blur The Lines

*I want to name at the outset that I am going to be using the language “homeless” in this blog.  The way that we use this language is often demeaning in this culture, and can be misleading because of how we understand the word “home.”  I have struggled and dialogued about this with friends, as recently as Jerry Herships this morning.  I am using the language in this situation for the sake of readability and because it is how the people I am discussing refer to themselves, but I want to continue to challenge myself and others to examine how we use our language and  find better, and perhaps more blurry, ways of talking about this topic.

“I think you need to add more water,” Joe Synan, the Thursday afternoon art teacher told me. My friend Tommie had picked me up at the artists’ community in the Houston Heights just in time to catch the end of the weekly water color classes at St. John’s Downtown. While Lanecia and some of The Art Project artists finished up their masterpieces, I squeezed in some quick beginner’s pointers and tried my hand at creating which, as Lanecia is always teaching me, is good for the soul.

“See, add more water, and just let those colors float across the paper towards one another. Let the water do the work,” Joe said as I flowed my dark blue smoothly into my yellow. You could barely tell where the transition took place. “It’s unpredictable, and imprecise, but that is what makes it beautiful.” That unpredictable nature is also exactly what makes it difficult for those who like stark lines and contrasts. It was a medium that fit pretty precisely the leadership and congregation of St. John’s.

Watercolor became inescapably theological for me as I sat in St. John’s, a place where the lines between people are not thick and stark but thin and shifting.

This week, while I was helping serve the Saturday morning breakfast, I was working alongside a volunteer group from another church. The man who runs the breakfast program walked past and called out, “Food looks good,” as he went by. One of the volunteers replied innocently, “I hope you’ll enjoy it!” She had assumed he was one of the homeless community there for a meal. He may very well have been a part of the homeless community at some point, or, then again, maybe he has not. They were not certain, actually, whether I was a member of the homeless community or not when they asked me to scoop eggs; I was not certain myself. The lines are not clear here. Too much of the water of baptism has washed over this place for the lines and categories that dictate the kingdoms of the world to hold sway over the freedom of the kingdom of God.

Baptism – by which I mean the visible and effective sign of the love and grace of God – by which I mean the love and grace of God – has a way of changing people, changing categories, changing communities.

As someone who lives on the lines, rather than staying inside them, I felt comfortable in this place. A place where lines almost seem to disappear, washed away by a conviction that we ought to view one another as Christ views us.

Much like Peter at the gates of the Temple – healing the crippled man so that he can enter and worship, rather than merely giving him money – St. John’s seeks not just to offer charity to the homeless community of Houston, but acceptance and healing and confidence.

I have heard many people write and talk about the thin places in the world; the places where the space between heaven and earth is very thin. And here was another kind of thin, a place where the space between people was very thin.

St. John’s has made it one of it’s missions to eliminate classism from the worship space; and they do not simply dip their toe into that water. To say they welcome the homeless community does not quite capture what is taking place there, as I soon learned. They in fact welcome the people who are not welcome anywhere else – the registered sex offenders, the people with a criminal record, those involved in prostitution, those with alcohol seeping out of their pores – those beloved children of God who have both a past and a future, just like you and me.

Maybe the thing that sets St. John’s apart is not that it makes the lines between people and categories so thin, but because the leaders here understand how meaningless those categories actually are and, consequently, refuse to accept them. You may be homeless today, but you don’t have to be tomorrow. You may feel unloved right now, but we can change that in an instant; and if you are not ready for that to change, until the time comes when you are ready to receive love, you’ll just have to accept, as Rudy says, that “we love you and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Those words may seem like a cool catchphrase, until you see it lived out, until you see how hard it is, until you see how true it is. Once you have seen how it has changed just one life, you can no longer see it as a cute catchphrase – you have to see it as a declaration of war; a declaration of war on hopelessness, on despair, on poverty, on hate; a declaration of war on sexism, classism and racism; a declaration of war on all the voices inside your head that say you can’t, you won’t, you haven’t, and you never will be good enough. I would not want to be in the shoes of despair, disdain, or denigration when they have to go up against those words and the people who live them out.

Those words, that are so easy to say and so hard to live, are powerful because when you tear down walls and categories and boxes, you are tearing down the very things that protect you, the very things that make you feel different, better or safe from the suffering of those around you. When you float your water across the page and blur the lines, the water of others mingles with your own; and with it their suffering, their struggles, their liabilities, their strength, their beauty and their gifts. Water makes an us from an I, makes a we from a you, makes an ours from a mine.

In the artwork that is St. John’s, the words of uncompromising love form the pigment as God’s water washes it all over the page of this city. The words make a claim, the same claim God makes – I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it. The water blurs the lines of division so that those words do not stay in one box, do not remain applied to only one category of people.

The water takes away our ability to choose who those words fit. The water of baptism removes the lie that we have chosen – that we get to pick and choose who we will love and who we will see, and who we will accept as family. The water washes away the walls we build around our minds and hearts and eyes.

Somehow, when those lines of division and categorization are diminished, it makes it possible to move between them.

One of the men I encountered where I was staying in Houston had been homeless and a member of another church for years. That congregation loved celebrating his presence and the fact that they were inclusive enough to welcome him. They shared the fact with others and made it a highlight of their ministry. It was a source of great encouragement to them that they had a “homeless friend” and that someone from the “homeless” category felt safe in their community.

Pastor Rudy, however, did not see a “homeless friend” but a friend. He saw something that most of us can’t see – he saw the man, not the category or the box he fit in. Seeing the man and not the category, he asked him a very simple question – do you want a place to live? No one had thought to ask that before and, wonder of wonders, he leapt at the chance. After years of having his homeless presence celebrated, he finally was himself able to celebrate having a home.

I do not intend to oversimplify, and there are many complex reasons why people become and remain homeless, but they are not a category, a token, a triumph or a prize – they are people. They are God’s. They are ours. We are theirs.

Perhaps we would all be better off if we looked at all the lines that we draw between ourselves and others, all of the categories and boxes we place people in, and float a little water over that page. Let the lines blur and blend.

Living in the blur – not quite housed, not quite unhoused – not quite domestic, not quite international – not quite young, not quite old – I float on the waters of my baptism and wait to see where on the paper God will land me. While I wait, I look around to see where is there a need for more pigment, more texture, more detail, and – most importantly – where are there more lines that need to be blurred.

Joe Synan teaches his weekly free watercolor class through The Art Project
Joe Synan teaches his weekly free watercolor class through The Art Project
Joe Synan teaches his weekly free watercolor class through The Art Project
Joe Synan teaches his weekly free watercolor class through The Art Project
Lanecia Rouse, who manages The Art Project, and the Rev. Justin Coleman, two of my favorite line blur-ers
Lanecia Rouse, who manages The Art Project, and the Rev. Justin Coleman, two of my favorite line blur-ers

Put Me In Coach

“Will you pray for me?” Rudy asked. Pulling myself out of the worship moment, I opened my eyes and nodded. “Just go up there and start praying,” Rudy said to me, motioning towards the stage area where the worship leaders of St. John’s Downtown were raising a worship ruckus for Wednesday evening Bible Study. ‘Oh, he means that kind of pray,’ I realized, as I looked up at the stage and lights and room full of strangers on my first day in Houston. ‘All you’ve got to do is go up there and talk to God,’ I told myself calmly, ‘That is something you like to do.’ It was true; talking to God was something I had been doing an awful lot of these days, and it was not that much of a leap to do it out loud.

I liked this new way of doing church. This was something different. I liked the unpredictability of it, the activity, the energy, the sense of teamwork. In this worship party, Rudy was that friend that made you stop being a wallflower and get out on the dance floor with everyone else. In this game, Rudy was the coach that got you up off the bench and sent you into the action.

From past experience, I should have known that you don’t step on Rudy’s field unless you are prepared to play, because the coach might send you in at any moment.

I was not used to that kind of impulsive action. I was accustomed to church being more like a chess game than a soccer match. I was accustomed to a world of order and predictability where full grown adults, even rooms full of pastors, sit around a table during Bible Study; and when the question of “who wants to pray?” is raised we act like there is something incredibly interesting on the table in front of us and avoid eye contact at all costs.

But here we were. Who was going to pray? I was. When was I going to do it? Now.

I should not have been surprised. When I met Rudy three years ago, he did something similar. After I introduced him to a remarkable and pure-hearted young leader from the church I pastored, Jordan Harris, he told Jordan that he was going to have him come up on stage and share his story with Annual Conference. Jordan got pulled up off the bench and into the game, and I’m pretty sure that experience changed his life.

There are many ways of being a leader. Some leaders do all the work; some leaders want all the praise; some leaders need all the focus. And some leaders look their players straight in the eye and tell them to just go out there and do it, making them believe that they can. Do what you were born to, called to, trained to do. Just do it.

After I prayed, one of St. John’s young pastors, Steven Chambers gave an excellent message where he talked about that exact phrase – Just do it. – and how effective it was for a certain sneaker company because of it simplicity.

There was a question that had been rolling around in the back of my head for the past few months, and actually the ball had been thrown in there by Rudy. He had asked me, while I was spending time with God on the island of Eleuthera, what it meant to me to be a pastor. Over the months that passed since then, I have had a lot of images, memories and experiences that have come to mind and been woven into my answer to the question – “what does it mean to be a pastor?” Yet, at the end of the day, there are many ways in which elaborate theories and answers and strategies are not what is needed. When you cut close to the bone and get at the heart of the matter, the defining moments in every pastor’s life are those moments when you “just do it.” I call those the flashbulb moments; the memories imprinted that will never go away; the moments that teach you something about yourself, God and others.

In his message that night, Steven used a clip from a sneaker commercial that featured not a professional athlete, but simply an average teenage boy running down an average back road in an average manner. The commercial closed with those words we know all to well. Just do it.

My mind swirled to the last time I went for a run like that on the island of Eleuthera in December. I had already been stopped by several families along the side road of the coastal village of James Cistern by the time I happened upon Mark and his grandfather. Along with their dog, they were walking away from the small, four-room elementary school and towards home. We exchanged pleasantries and Mark’s grandfather inquired about his behavior at the after-school program. I assured him that Mark was a great kid and we enjoyed having him. What commenced after that was a start-stop conversation as I attempted to continue running while Mark stopped me every few feet with a question, not understanding what I was doing.

“Where are you going?”

“To the other side of town, to the grocery store.”

“Why are you running?”

“Because I like to run.”

“Do you have to run?”

“No, I just enjoy it.”

Finally I was able to break away and continue my evening’s jog, picking up the pace to try to arrive at the James Cistern dock before the sun set. I knew that there would be men cleaning fish and cracking open conch shells as their girlfriends watched and talked and laughed with a bottle of Kalik in one hand and a friendly salute waiting in the other. I have a sixth sense for sunsets, and I could feel that this one would begin dipping below the horizon within minutes.

Yet, a few minutes after running past Mark, I sensed that I was not alone. Looking back over my right shoulder as I ran, I saw Mark in hot pursuit with a huge goofy grin on his face.

“I am running with you!” the sweet, Bahamian child exclaimed, delighted with himself.

And in that moment he was more beautiful than any sunset I would find that night.

There are many ways to answer the question of what it means to be a pastor. Yet, all the theories and education and training in the world won’t do us any good if we don’t know how to get out there and just do it. It is when we just do it that others start to do it too; not out of obligation or guilt; not out of the need to follow rules or check things off a list; not out of the pursuit of power, attention or self-righteousness; rather out of the pure joy of living life the way we were created to live it.

Pastor is not a job. Pastor is not a career. Pastor is not a title.
Pastor is a calling. Pastor is an action. Pastor is a life.

Just do it.  Run the race.  Love the race.  See who joins you when you do.

The talented Lanecia Rouse once again captures a beautiful moment for me at St. John's Downtown
The talented Lanecia Rouse once again captures a beautiful moment for me at St. John’s Downtown

Strength Like A Child

“Lord, we pray for our guardians. Make them as strong as you are, as strong as we are.” The young girl prayed from her heart, just feet from the altar of the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke’s in Houston, Texas. Surrounded by her peers, they stood together at the front of the church praying for their parents on the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend.

I did not know any of their parents, but I did know their pastors well enough to know that these children had some pretty good guardians looking out for them. Pastoring together for the past five years, the Rev. Justin Coleman and the Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz had brought together a community in that space that felt both delightfully organic and sadly uncommon.

Looking around me I saw a congregation dominated by the presence of youth and children with a diversity that was at once both intentional and natural. The congregation’s musician Dr. Shana Mashego led a worship party that morning that was unparalleled, with a worship team that seemed determined to stretch the global imagination with leaders from Bulgaria to Japan to the Ivory Coast.

By the time that Rev. Coleman got up and gave thanks for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s work, it was clear that in one corner of the world that man’s vision was truly taking on flesh.

Of all the eloquent words that that service contained, however, the ones that stayed with me the most remained those of that small girl who prayed for the adults at the outset, “Make them as strong as you are, as strong as we are.”

How true it is. There is a reason why Christ wanted us to have the faith of a child, but he also may have wished for us the strength, the wisdom, the courage, the love of a child.

When I was blessed to live at the Isaiah House, in Durham, North Carolina, I had the privilege of living with what may very well be the wisest children I have come across. They had been blessed with guardians and parents who had the strength to love with everything they had, and the courage to do the right thing even when it was hard.

The house was called the Isaiah House because the people who lived there were trying to live out Isaiah 58 as if they truly believed that it meant what it said. The passage says to bring the homeless poor into your home – so they brought the homeless poor into their home. It says to loose the bonds of injustice – so they worked against systems of oppression and injustice. It says to share your bread with the hungry – so they shared their bread with the hungry. And sometimes a smiling face showing up for dinner with a bakery cake received at the food bank revealed that the hungry shared their food with them as well. Their lives bore witness to the love of God better than words ever could.

One sunny day, I sat in the back yard with a young African American boy of about 6 years old, who had moved in when his grandmother was evicted, and a Caucasian baby, who had been born into the Isaiah House family that year. We sat in the hammock and swayed, as the young boy held the baby in his lap and played with his fingers and made him laugh. Sunlight fell in splotches through the leaves of the pecan tree overhead and warmed our faces as the peace of the moment warmed our hearts.

Finally the young boy turned to me and said, referring to the baby, “God loves him right?”

“Yes,” I said with a slight smile.

Then, after a pause, “And God loves me.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And I love the baby.” Another pause. Then he concluded, “I think that’s what Martin Luther King was talking about.”

“I think you’re right,” I answered, putting my arm around him.

It was just that simple. He knew that because God loved this baby, he ought to love this baby.   And because of what Dr. King had said and did, he knew that love carried with it life-changing social implications.  They had shared a home, and shared meals, and shared prayers, and somewhere along the line, they had become family. As Isaiah 58 says, he did not want to hide himself from his own kin. It was just that simple.

It may not have been the red hills of Georgia, but his act of wisdom and love on the brown hills of South Carolina was enough to convince me that Dr. King would have been pleased to see his words taking on life.

Now, five years later, on the church steps of Texas, his words took on life for me again as I saw children that were becoming family; children that were claiming their strength and praying that strength upon their elders.

Often strength looks different than we would expect it to look.  As Dr. King taught us, strength looks like hands gripping other hands in solidarity; strength does not look like hands gripping the trigger of a gun or the controls of a tank.  Strength looks like a pregnant Alice Walker following Dr. King’s casket, heartbroken with all that followed him to the end; strength does not look like a vigilante following a teenager simply because of the color of their skin.  Strength is as simple as a child’s love; not as complicated as the policies and arguments we make to avoid treating some people with love, compassion and justice.

Strength feels like the wood under your fingertips as you grip the edges of the table to keep yourself from leaving when the conversation gets hard; strength sounds like speaking up even when your voice shakes with fear; strength looks like offering your hand in friendship to the one who believes you are their enemy.

This Sunday, strength looked like an African American leader from Texas, and a Latina leader from Bolivia sharing the Table of the Lord – as they do every Sunday.  Strength looked like the the salsa steps of the worship singers, and the smiles exchanged between the musicians gathered from every corner of the globe.  Strength looked like rows of children from many different countries revealing that the kingdom of God has no borders.  Strength looked like joy.  Strength looked like love.  After all that strength has gone through in this scarred land, it was good to see it get to celebrate the fruits of its labor.

For all the days when strength can look tired and beleaguered, it was good this Sunday that strength got to show how beautiful it is.

The children pray for the adults at the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke's
The children pray for the adults at the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke’s
Rev. Justin Coleman and Rev. Miraya Ottaviano serve communion together
Rev. Justin Coleman and Rev. Miraya Ottaviano serve communion together
Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz leads the congregation in prayer
Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz leads the congregation in prayer
Rev. Justin Coleman brings the word
Rev. Justin Coleman brings the word
Dr. Shana Mashego leads the worship party
Dr. Shana Mashego leads the worship party

Red… Yellow… Green

“Ms. C, will you sing a song for Hannah. Just because it is such a blessing and I have not heard you sing in so long.” As Lanecia spoke, I looked up from the art that I was examining to the form of the artist standing over me; the same beautiful soul that was reflected in her art shone down at me from behind her tender eyes. Sitting at a table in the Knowles-Rowland Center at St. John’s in downtown Houston, at the end of Bread of Life‘s Saturday breakfast with the homeless community, I found myself entranced by the many forms of beauty around me.

“What should I sing?” Ms. C asked, looking at the Project Manager of The Art Project. “Anything you want,” Lanecia answered.

What happened next was something transcendent. “Our Father, who ART in heaven…” I smiled broadly as Ms. C began to sing the Lord’s Prayer to the same tune that my mother had taught me as a child, making sure to emphasize the fact that God puts art all around us, even in our prayers. “…give us this day our daily bread…” Lanecia and I both turned our head slightly, in a subtle act of reflex, as the four year old child sitting in the back of the room behind us began to sing along. “…and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…”

Ms. C finished with her bowed slightly, “It’s been a while,” she said, “my voice is gravel-ey.” “No,” I responded, “it was beautiful. And you don’t know it, but you blessed me in a special way.”

I then began to tell her about the day a couple weeks ago when I had been walking on the beach in North Carolina and the song had come to my heart. I was having trouble finding the words to talk to God, until the song came to mind and I started singing. It was windy and the beach was cold and empty so I sang it to my hearts content, over and over again in Taize style all the way. Two miles from Southern Shores to Kitty Hawk, and two miles back. It was a beautiful walk, don’t get me wrong, but the impact of it did not hit me until that moment. It seemed God was winking at me once again, as my mind turned the two puzzle pieces to see that they fit together, reminding me that there was a thread of meaning through this journey we are on together.

“The Lord’s Prayer is our prayer,” Ms. C said. “The Lord’s Prayer was meant for homeless people. That is why it says ‘give us this day our daily bread.’ We know what it is to need our daily bread.”

“I need daily bread too,” Lanecia said.

“Yes, but no one is more in need of daily bread than a homeless person. No one understands it better than we do,” Ms. C replied.

Lanecia nodded as if to say ‘touche’ and answered, “You’re always teaching me.”

A couple months before, while I was listening to God with my friends on Eleuthera, I had been blessed with a spiritual direction visit via Skype from Pastor Juanita Campbell Rasmus, one of the founders of Bread of Life, Inc., the non-profit of St. John’s responsible both for the morning’s breakfast that fed the community’s bellies, and for The Art Project that fed their hearts. The challenge she had left me with was to ask God how God wanted me to pray. And here, coming full circle as I sat in a building that hosted Bread of Life, was another piece of that puzzle.

I was learning to live my prayers. I was learning what it meant to live as if I really trusted God for my daily bread. It was hard at moments, but God always sent me what I needed to keep my courage up. The day before it had been my beautiful friend Yvette Davis, who had found her way from Pennsylvania, where we had served together, to a conference in Houston. Today it was my gentle friend Lanecia, whose beautiful soul had welcomed me first to Durham, and then to Nashville and now, in this chapter of my life, to Houston.

“Tell me more about your art,” I said to Ms. C, as she and Lanecia finished their dialogue about the Lord’s Prayer. “I love the colors you use, tell me about the colors again.”

She pointed to a small painting of what seemed to be a stop light, with the colored circles stacked – red, yellow, green. It was painted on cardboard because, as Lanecia explained, it provided a way of redeeming the medium that many were compelled to use to make signs asking for help. With a little love and paint and talent, cardboard became a sign of strength rather than vulnerability.

“Red is stop. Yellow is wait. Green is go, it is hope,” Ms. C said. “When a homeless person looks at a stop light, they can see green and see hope and motivation. Green means go. Go to HUD and get housing. Go to St. John’s and get love. Go gets people moving.”

I looked with admiration at the spread of paintings in front of me. Throughout all of them the colors remained, bringing her message through again and again.

Go. Hope. Green. Life.

God had certainly been giving me the green light these days.

I had slammed my brakes on hard a few months back, when after feeling tossed around and battered, I had realized that I did not have to wait for anyone else to say “Stop” or “No more.” When the realization that I had the power to say “Stop” finally washed over me, it was an incredibly liberating feeling and Red glowed with all its warmth and power and welcomed me to its embrace.

Gradually, as the tire skids began to fade, and the shock of a full-on stop dissipated, Yellow came into view. Thousands of miles from home, on the island of Eleuthera, with people I loved and a God who cherished me, it was easier to respect the authority of Yellow than it would have been anywhere else. As I stood throughout those months watching the sun set, Yellow lapped at my toes, as the golden waves rolled in. Yellow lingered, as its grains of sand clung to my dampened skin. Yellow caressed my face, as it’s final rays dipped below the horizon, revealing an echo of red as it disappeared. I submitted to Yellow’s loving command. Wait.

Then a couple weeks before I met Ms. C, Green spoke up. My feet were back in my favorite place, my sister’s home in Arlington, when I heard Green come through my headphones. A song I’d never heard before, by Sandra McCracken, an artist I had long respected, whose music had accompanied me along many other roads.

“Go, go if you want
Go, on your own
Go when you’re ready
Brave girl you are smart
Go when your heart is strong and is steady

Diamonds are your words, babe
Speak them slow, the wisdom is coming
Sure the steps that you take
In sorrow and hope, your beauty becoming…
Hush the noises, hush your doubt
Find your courage, draw it out…”

The time of Green has come. For Ms. C, and also for me.

Lanecia, a skilled photographer, captures a beautiful moment with a beautiful person
Lanecia, a skilled photographer, captures a beautiful moment with a beautiful person

From The Art Project’s website: “The Art Project, Houston’s ultimate goal is to  provide homeless artist an opportunity to make their own trade by creating, displaying and selling their art as a collective body through art exhibits in collaboration with those who are actively engaged in ameliorating suffering and bringing an end to this condition including local agencies, groups, organizations and individuals who share the concern of  the homeless dilemma.”  Interested in supporting homeless artists?  Find out more at http://www.theartprojecthouston.org

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Never Shrink

“You need to go back to college, Pastor, that is where real women find husbands.”  The word “Pastor” flew out dripping with passive aggressive hostility; making it clear – if there was any doubt – that insecurity was the force behind the discomfort that settled over an otherwise pleasant evening among friends.  I suppose the angry young man did have valid grounds for directing his fire my way.  I had, after all, had the chuzpah to go to a college world-renowned for its excellent MRS. degree, and graduated with nothing more than a BS and admittance to a top graduate school.  

Life was tough for him these days, and he was angry.  He felt the need to take it out on someone.  He further felt the need to make it clear that he was a man who had proposed to his wife in college.  Thus, he was a goal.  Thus, he was what every woman longed to have.  Thus, he should not need to feel threatened by a woman who had chosen to live her life differently.  “You better hurry up,” he continued, “you’ve only got a few years left until you are a high risk pregnancy.”  The world breeds all kinds of bullies – some of them more socially acceptable than others.  

He seemed to feel the need to assert that he was not less than me; that he was in a completely different category from me and always would be regardless of whatever I might ever offer the world. He was a man.  He was not in competition with me; he was in fact – in his own eyes – the prize I ought to seek.

His line of attack brought to mind Beyonce’s new CD; in particular her sampling from the highly favored words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

We teach girls to shrink themselves  To make themselves smaller  We say to girls “You can have ambition But not too much You should aim to be successful But not too successful Otherwise you will threaten the man.”  Because I am female I am expected to aspire to marriage.  I am expected to make my life choices Always keeping in mind that Marriage is the most important.  Now marriage can be a source of Joy and love and mutual support But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage And we don’t teach boys the same.  We raise girls to view each other as competitors Not for jobs or for accomplishments Which I think can be a good thing But for the attention of men.  We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings In the way that boys are.  Feminist: a person who believes in the Social political and economic equality of the sexes.

I’ve always figured that the good Lord made me small enough to begin with, I was not about to volunteer to become smaller for anyone but that good Lord. Neither was I willing to be weaker, less gifted, less independent, less of a leader.

We say we don’t want people to hold themselves back.  Yet, when we perpetuate the kind of culture that Adichie speaks about, we do exactly that – we ask people to be less.  To want less, to achieve less, to earn less, to desire less, to enjoy less, to be less so that someone else is not threatened by the wholeness of all that you can be. Yet, in making any individual less, the wholeness of us all is diminished.

When I was a teenager, I made the commitment to God that our relationship was primary.  I was the strange kind of youth who would read Oswald Chambers and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and ponder how to offer my utmost for his highest and how to endure the cost of discipleship while wandering in the woods.  The way that that played out in my life was that it made me incredibly resistant to diminishing, to lessening, to weakening, to shrinking; because to do so I would not only be letting myself down, I would be hurting my relationship with God.  

I serve a big God, and I know that when I am small, God, God’s love, and God’s calling remain unchanged.  I would rather entrust my life and future to God’s hands than anyone else’s.  I would rather be the person God is making me into than what anyone else would tell me I need to be, should be, have to be, or will wish I had been.

Do not assume that everyone wants what you want, and do not impose a problem where one does not exist. Few gifts are so noxious as the offering of unsolicited and undeserved pity. 

Maybe God has someone who will make me feel bigger instead of smaller, who will expand me rather than compress me. Maybe God has someone who is brave enough to step up and find out that my walls are really doors if you know how to open them.

Maybe I can be content either way, because that is not what is most important to me. Maybe I refuse to submit to a culture that tells women that one thing is more important than anything else.  In its gentlest forms, we call it good natured ribbing; in its crueler forms, it can be used by men like the one I described to remind a strong and self-possessed woman of her place.

Fortunately, I’ve never looked to others to tell me where my place ought to be.  I honestly believe the only place for me is where God wants me to be. I know that God has strengthened my feet through a difficult journey, so that they might be able to grow roots, gripping deep into the earth, whenever the world tries to knock me off my square.

Never shrink sisters. The world needs all you have to offer. 

Just Smile

“These are sooo good! Have you ever had them?” the man in front of me in line chattered and grinned as he purchased two nutrition bars. The first thing I had noticed about him as I walked up was that he clearly spent a lot of time outdoors, fitting since we were in an “outdoors store.” The second thing I noticed was that he was wearing shorts during the “Polar Vortex.” Brrrrr…

The first thing he had noticed about me, apparently, was my smile. “Great smile, you’ve got a great smile,” he kept repeating. And the second thing he had noticed was my nails, which were burgundy for the first time in my life, “Great nail polish. Great smile!”

“Thank you,” I said, uncharacteristically accepting rather than deflecting the compliments.

“My name is Ben,” he said.

“Well, hello Ben, I’m Hannah,” I replied.

“You really need to try these; these are such delicious bars. You know you’ve got beautiful eyes. Just look at those eyes.” The long string of compliments kept coming, dripping with innocent sincerity, and reminding me of my nephew in a chatty mood.

“Well, nice to meet you Ben,” I said as he finished his transaction and turned to leave.

“Wait,” he said, coming back “You’ve just got to try one of these. They are so delicious. They are cherry and chocolate. Just a minute.” He began to take one of the nutrition bars out of his bag and struggled to open it. “Hey buddy,” he addressed the cashier, “You got some scissors or something?” Begrudgingly, the cashier handed over some scissors and Ben gracefully snipped the package open, rather than struggling with his nails. Before I knew it, he had popped a piece in my mouth and I was agreeing that it was delicious.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” he said as he cheerfully, grinned a big toothless grin. Then hoisting his worldly possessions up onto his back, he started to walk out of the store. At the door he turned around – big grin framed by an unkempt beard; black boots rising up towards camo cut off shorts; tangled hair resting on the shoulders of his camo jacket; and kind eyes. “Have a nice day!” he called out. “You too,” I said. And with that, he opened the door and trekked back out into the frigid cold.

“I’m so sorry,” the cashier said, annoyed and embarrassed. “He’s one of our ‘regulars’,” his voice twisted the word that should have been a compliment into an insult; his tone the same used by the nurses at the hospital where I did CPE when what they called “frequent flyers” came into the Emergency Room.

My left eyebrow could not help but arch itself in unison with the right eyebrow’s dip. I considered the cashier before me and realized he was attempting to dispel what he considered to be an awkward moment by creating what I considered to be an awkward moment. He seemed to be under the impression that he had witnessed a conversation between an acceptable paying customer and an unacceptable houseless trespasser; a human being of sacred worth and someone slightly less than that.

His logic confused me because Ben was both a paying customer and a human being of sacred worth. Ben had just exhibited genuine kindness to me. He had paid me many sincere compliments in such an innocent manner that I was willing to receive them. And finally, he had opened up and shared with me what may very well have been his main meal for the day.

I wish I could tell you that I said all that, but I let the expression on my face do most of the talking. “You are blessed to have him as a regular. What a great guy!” I said. “He really made me miss some of the friends I went out with in Delaware.”

The cashier did not know what to say, and I left the store.

Walking across town, back to my sister’s house, I was conflicted. I was struggling with the cashier’s response, and how common it is, and how often I may have done the same thing. I was hoping Ben had a place to stay that was out of the cold. Yet, of any of us in that moment, Ben seemed in the least need of “fixing.” The influence of Ben’s cheerfulness was stronger than the worries on my troubled mind and I gave into it and smiled.

My smile was caught again, this time by Elder Christian and Elder Murrell, young gentlemen, straight out of the Book of Mormon musical, who wanted to know if I had heard about the true religion of Jesus. “Go for it!” I said cheerfully, adopting Ben’s friendly attitude, as a nervous Elder Murrell stammered and searched for words, taken aback by my enthusiasm. After a few minutes, we cheerfully parted ways after I confessed to being an Elder of another kind.

Cold wind cut through my scarf and up around the bottom of my blue jeans, but warmth flowed from inside. Walking on through the ‘Polar Vortex,’ I couldn’t help but wonder how compliments and attempts at conversion – things that usually would have brought up my walls like a booby trap in an Indiana Jones film – were instead bringing joy.

I asked God to show me what I was supposed to learn from this change of heart. Lots of thoughts flowed, but none of them seemed like the right one. Yes, all four of us – Ben, the Mormon Elders and I – were all friendly people, walking in a cold city. Whether by choice, calling or circumstance, none of us were returning to a traditional “home of our own.” Despite our difference we were people of sacred worth and worthy of respect.

It did not come to me until later, however, as I switched from the orange line to the red line on the Metro, the key to the puzzle was the thing that had brought us together.

Smiles.

We had all responded to the very human and unconscious invitation of a smile. Not a forced smile; not an ironic, sarcastic or sly grin; but an involuntary expression that wells up from something happening inside and bubbles onto your face as a smile.

When we know who we are, we are better able to know others. When we know that we are loved, it is easier to love others. When we can smile, it makes it easier for others to do so. The attitude that you walk around the world with affects more people than just you – your energy impacts everyone you encounter.

When you smile at another person, you remind them that they are worthy of love.

Mother Teresa said “Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at; do it for peace. Let us radiate the peace of God and so light His light and extinguish in the world and in the hearts of all men all hatred and love for power.”

Clad in military camo and inexplicably warm on such a cold day, Ben had the least but offered the most. He offered peace.

Chilly city
Chilly city

Faithful Women in a Difficult World

“Don’t engage them,” my friend Wendy said gently, as her arm hooked around my waist and pulled me back from the curb. Walking back from lunch during General Conference in 2012, I had drawn in my breath sharply when I saw the signs from a certain church in Westboro, attacking, among other things, women of the cloth. I had just been about to go into “why I oughta” Popeye mode, when Wendy reminded me of the better way. Wendy and her friends stood along the curb, encouraging people to be loving and gentle and peaceful; not to return hurt for hurt; and shielding as many eyes as possible from the hateful words on the signs. Turn the other cheek if I’ve ever seen it.

Wendy’s example came strongly to mind last week as I observed chatter on Facebook about whether or not to engage a religious/political group that had put harmfully worded statements about women and racial/ethnic minorities out into the blogosphere. One friend attempted to engage by writing his own blog; then others voiced their opinions on whether or not it was even worth engaging. In typical fashion, I did a half-cocked “why I oughta” before the sense of Wendy’s arm reached around my waist all the way from South Carolina, reminding me of a better way.

It was partly reflecting on Wendy’s approach to life, and partly my recent viewing of Vision, a biopic of the Catholic saint Hildegard von Bingen, that led me to my own epiphany on this Epiphany Day.

For my whole life, I have been aware of the existence of what the world calls “difficult women.” I remember hearing them called “Feminazi’s” on the radio as I rode to school in the morning. I remember hearing them preached against, teached against, prayed against, and talked against at school and at church. I remember my first experience of being accused of being one on a service trip in Canada as a youth – and the moment I realized at fourteen that I was one. I remember when I first learned that you could use humor to cope when I saw the quote printed on a card “Well-behaved women seldom make history” – the card seeming to wink at me and offer hope that there were other women like me and someday I would find them. I remember choosing to accept my calling to the clergy, knowing it would label me forever in the conservative world I grew up in as a “difficult woman” and possibly even a heretic. I remember the first time a man, with what felt like every bit of power over my life, tried with every ounce of that power to make an example of me – and I remember the miraculous moment when he failed.

Yet, at some point in the not to distant past, I began to think that in order to cope with the world’s fearful derision of female leaders, we needed something more than humor and sisterhood and prayer. I was looking for something else. Another layer. A deeper truth.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta primed the pump for my epiphany, as I read Come Be My Light, a collection of Teresa’s most personal letters. In her letters, I found a Teresa I had not known existed – an extraordinarily “difficult woman.” There was something warm and liberating about that, to know that this woman, so beloved for her compassion and sacrifice, was one of us after all – another “how do you solve a problem like Maria” nun. Throughout her letters, Teresa reveals herself to be a woman who is striving so very hard to be submissive, and succeeding in her own way. She knows that God has a calling for her life, but because of the structure of her institution, it is difficult for her to live it out. Striving to remain in submission, she waits for the blessing of the Pope, but in the process she badgers every church leader who comes near her with endless letters, seeking an advocate in an institution where young women had little power. In the end it is her own pen, personality and voice that becomes her advocate. Finally, after years of waiting and letter writing, refusing to give up even when she is repeatedly asked to do so, she receives permission and blessing to begin her own Order.

The realization began to dawn on me that while Teresa had her reasons for not wanting her own unique brand of submission to be made public, the Catholic Church was right that the world is a better place for the truth of her struggle to be made known. Although, I would assume that it was more her spiritual struggle than her institutional struggle that they intended to divulge. As little as I expected it when I began to read, looking out over the Caribbean Sea one evening on Eleuthera, that book revealed to me a woman who had to fight for her calling, fight for what she believed in, and learn how to wait until the time was right.

I found a thoroughly unexpected, thoroughly difficult woman.

Teresa began to challenge me to reevaluate my understanding of what it looks like to be a feminist, womanist, mujerista, “difficult” woman.

Which brings us back to Hildegard von Bingen and my dear friend Wendy. As one who suffers under the same assumptions from others, I have no illusions that Wendy’s life has been easy, nor Hildegard’s. Yet, despite whatever struggles and challenges arise, they kept moving forward and making a difference.

As I viewed, Vision, a presentation of Hildegard’s life, I watched as she became a nun; then the head nun; and then as she demanded, and after much struggle acquired, a convent of her own, separate from the Benedictine brothers and not under submission to their abbot. As the story progressed, an emotion began to arise in me that I finally was able to identify as admiration. This woman was a brilliant scientist and scholar during a time when that was not normative. She was a leader who stood up for and protected her sisters. And while it has to be stated that as a woman of privilege she had access to another type of life than most women during the time, she certainly used it in a different way than most women of privilege. She became so well respected as a mystic that she was actually permitted to preach during a time when women were not permitted by canon law.

She preached. I love to see those two words put together – “she” and “preached” – when speaking of a woman from the 12th century.

As I watched Hildegard ride off into the sunset to go preach in the final scene of the film, I realized something. Hildegard was not a difficult woman. She was an extraordinary woman. An amazing woman. An awe-inspiring woman. She did the things that she did not because she was difficult but because she was faithful.

Difficult does not define us. Faithful does.

Hildegard and Teresa were church leaders in their own way who were willing to submit, just not to injustice. They were not difficult, they were determined. They were not rebellious, they were called. They did not have problems with authority, they were submitted to a higher authority – and they were incapable of obeying the laws of man over the laws of God. For them that meant forging a new path, a very difficult one, and finding a way to live out their calling in a church and in a world that did not already have a template for them to fill out or a box they could fit inside.

There is no such thing as a difficult woman. There is only a difficult world. A world that makes it difficult for us to be who we are called to be. It is only when we insist upon a calling that seeks to transform that difficult world, that the world turns on us and calls us difficult.

Which is why the world needs more Teresas and Hildegards… and Wendys. It needs them to inspire women trying to find their own calling, and show us we do not have to change who we are; to reach around our waists and pull us back when it is not the time for “why I oughta”; and to show us when the time is right to speak the truth boldly in love.

My epiphany is that these women are not difficult women. They are profoundly faithful women. It takes a whole lot of courage to be a faithful woman in such a difficult world.

What beautifully difficult women
What beautifully difficult women