Notes for the road

The kindness of God in my life comes in the form of friends who sharpen and challenge me, friends who call me out and call me forward. Last September, I recorded it in my journal, a sister-friend said to me, “Be attentive, Shannon. Pay attention, and take notes.” img_4491

I began taking notes, just small observations in a day’s time. Re-visiting what I recorded encouraged me. It reminded me of what shouldn’t be forgotten, what is needed to keep moving forward on this long-game walk. Perhaps these field notes would also serve someone else along the road.

  • We must be ourselves and fully so, whether anyone else is or not
  • Life is fragile–being whole and honest and intentional matters right now
  • Saying what we mean and being true is a worthwhile risk
  • Words matter and have power–in poetry, prose, and speech
  • Call to the deep places in others
  • I can trust Holy Spirit to lead me in all things
  • Church matters
  • Holy Spirit is always present
  • Living with less stuff brings freedom
  • The Kingdom is colorful, diverse, made up of many people and personalities
  • We must learn to sit where differences are and not always seek sameness
  • The world is full of pain and suffering–and I can be a part of change; I can be dynamically involved in pushing back the weight of dark and heavy things
  • Worship and study and connection sustain us
  • The world is big
  • We can listen better and learn to listen better
  • Sometimes we cry, because we ache at the beauty of it, and because we ache at the pain of it
  • Asking questions helps a lot
  • It takes time to teach a dog new things
  • Follow God’s voice. Move and act, without fear
  • Always be humble and available to learn
  • Let the sadness and the beauty be an invitation to real-er and truer things
  • Show up
  • Listen
  • Pray at all times
  • Seeking shalom is an active work
  • Intentionality is key
  • Change is always happening. Bigger changes are coming
  • We can’t filter ourselves through other people–only through scripture, Holy Spirit, and Christ himself
  • Once freed, it takes active, conscious choices to stay there
  • We always have things to learn
  • Grace is the space I want to live in
  • Every moment is an opportunity for growth
  • Prayer is like breathing–it can be intentional, but it doesn’t have to be complicated
  • Pay attention; the days will teach us how to live if we let them, if we let God have the whole of it
  • Most often, prayer on behalf of others is the primary gift of presence we can offer
  • There are many signs; we must look and listen, and then follow in faith knowing Christ has come and is here
  • We carry the fire of the Kingdom; wherever I go, will I let that burning in my bones guide me?
  • When I am not prioritizing sacred time and space to be quiet before God, pieces of myself get chipped away
  • Sometimes, extra stuff–possessions, wasted time, bad habits of the heart and life–just need to go
  • Don’t neglect confession
  • The work of our hands matters

What are you learning? What is God saying and pointing out? Take notes. Hold onto them. We need them for the journey.

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Now and then and now again

Yesterday morning, we listened to the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel lectionary readings. A woman spoke them over us all as we gathered in a middle school auditorium. We stood on worn, bare concrete. I bowed my head to avoid distraction, and I noticed the way the rows of wooden seating had been attached to the floor, decades of dust clustered tight round the screws.

Is this the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke?”¹  the reader, Kelly, continued, slow and deliberate. I looked up at her. Her earrings swayed as her mouth moved, all of the muscles around her face cooperative with each other.

“Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you; the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.”² I closed my eyes and let the images from the words wash over me. “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry and He will say, ‘Here I am.'”³ My mind drifted to another time altogether.

Carlisle, Kentucky, a fall retreat my junior year of college. I said that, those words. “Here I am.” I prayed them, as earnest and full as I knew how to answer, if God were still asking, “Whom shall I send?” like God asked of Isaiah, in chapter 6. That’s what the retreat speaker had talked about. Maybe. I couldn’t remember exactly. But the day was a marker, and I know where I sat in that meeting room 26 years ago.

I thought of being there, what I prayed there. Did I still mean it? I wondered.

Kelly read on. The Gospel lesson, Jesus told his disciples that they were the salt of the earth, the light of the world. “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house”–Jesus’s words in the fifth chapter of Matthew.

“The Word of the Lord,” Kelly said.

“Thanks be to God,” we replied. In a congruent movement, we reached behind our standing selves and pushed the vintage, hinged seats back down to receive our sitting selves. The guest pastor placed the black metal music stand in front of him to hold his notes, and he faced us. High ceiling and natural acoustics caught all of our settling sounds. A strange, melancholy had been present since the beginning of the service, and into that atmosphere, Jared preached.

I took some notes during the sermon, notes about light illuminating the darkness, about fasting that provokes attention and action on behalf of the oppressed. I kept thinking of that weekend all those years ago.

We sang. We took the sacraments. We lifted our voices in a Capella harmony to pray the Doxology. Pastor Andrew pronounced the benediction. We headed home.

In the quiet of the afternoon, after the boys scampered off to hockey and Audrey to do homework at a coffee shop, I pulled out my old journals. I’m not always kind to who I was then. Like young Shannon should have known a lot more, should have been more holy, less needy, less broken.

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In that year, a month after I started that new, blue floral journal in 1991, I stood in a cafeteria-turned-retreat-holy-space. Bare concrete floors, dust collected in corners and around the aging wooden window frames, Kentucky fall trying to cool down leftover summer. We sat there, a whole bunch of young ones, probably wrestling with some of the same should-be and should-have angst, and we listened to scriptures spoken to us and over us.

I confess I did not know what I was praying when I said I would go. I likely still do not know what I’m praying, but I’m letting it wash over me, letting it be my prayer, again.

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¹Isaiah 58:6

²Isaiah 58:8

³Isaiah 58:9

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These boots are made for walking

I picked my son up from school the day after the election. “Mom,” he said, “but didn’t he say that he had grabbed a woman by the…” His voice trailed off. We speak pretty frankly in our home, but he didn’t want to say the p-word. I hate that word. I was glad he didn’t say it, didn’t bruise my ears and insides to hear it come out of his mouth.

“Yes, son,” I said, “he did.” I paused. My eyes got a little teary at the weight of his obvious struggle to internalize that the only obvious choice of a large swath of the American people and of the Electoral College was our newly elected president. “Yes, he did,” I continued, “but that was a long time ago, and it could be that he is not the same anymore.” I told him this, because it was the very right thing to say, the very thing that I would want to be said of me ten or so years later. I pray to God I have grown and changed and been transformed, and so it is possible for anyone. “We will have to watch and see,” I told him. The rest of the drive home was quiet.

Around our table and in the car and sitting in the living room, we have all talked (and keep talking) about it a lot, scratching our heads, scrunching our brows, trying to make sense of everything. I am reading articles and books and having (sometimes raucous) conversations to look at the thing from all angles. We are learning that holding space for others at this time in history is as difficult as ever. We are watching television specials and interviews. We are opening the door to some glimmer of hope, some promise of a better word, some reason to believe that C-3PO’s sentiment of “We’re doomed!” could be very wrong. And, indeed, I know that some have resonated with C-3PO for the past eight years or during any number of administrations past.

I remember when the Bill Clinton scandal broke. I remember when I learned that JFK’s love life extended out past his wife, when a college professor spoke with easy candor about MLK’s extramarital affairs. It was a process of allowing my grade school naiveté concerning many of the presidents—some of them great leaders and reformers—to be crushed by an adult reality of all manner of immorality and grave character flaws.

Donald Trump is no anomaly, not with his personal affairs nor with his financial practices, nor with his propensity to say things without thinking. He made grand campaign promises and has stated tall orders for the coming administration. Again, nothing new for presidents. He (likely, prayerfully) won’t ruin our democracy in his term or (please, no) terms.

But I’m watching with different eyes this time. I’m absorbing what I’m seeing and hearing, and it feels distinctly other than any of the presidencies I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I’m paying attention in ways I should have been long before this election. If ever I believed that my small, southern-accented voice mattered, it is now.

f1f57509-6fe9-4cdf-a51a-4b1315b9475e1I put on my purple boots this weekend and joined a huuuuge amount of women (and men and children) worldwide to open my mouth and say:  Dear Mr. President–I’m one voice, but I’m walking in tandem with a multitude of strong voices. While we may not agree on every single thing, we are here. We won’t lie on our backs and take bullying and mocking and belittling. Policy issues aside for just a moment, could you try and not be a jerk as you lead our country and represent us to the whole world? This demonstration is just the beginning, for me and for a host of us new to this kind of movement.

I’m marching for my daughters, who are not simply female bodies up for grabs, who were not fashioned for objectification. I’m marching for p2b69a5cf-c2ad-49d8-96e3-c225cfb5e1543eople with disabilities. I’m marching for the misunderstood, overlooked, maligned, and left behind. I’m marching for people who are not like me. I’m marching for people who still don’t have clean water, people who want fair treatment. I’m marching past Red and Blue, to the center where the purple is and where the tension lives. I’m marching past my own fears and discomforts and possible labeling and misunderstanding. I’m marching for people who are scared. I’m marching to listen to people face to face and see for myself why people are marching.

I’m marching, because my son is listening.

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kodachrome

Granny bought a Polaroid camera somewhere around 1978 or 1979. We thought it a magical experience, to take a photo and have the image slide out and come to life as we watched. They said that it developed faster (or was it more evenly?) by waving it back and forth like a paper fan. Granny called each family unit together to sit in and around the orange and brown striped velour recliner. Every Christmas, each group took their turn, and then all of the grandkids sat on the green sofa and spent another sheet of the film. Two packs captured the whole gathering time–present opening, family photos, and a few extra images because one of the cousins took a turn without permission. 20 images.

Because of those photos, I can scan the room outside of the white frame and see the orange bulbs on Granny’s plastic window candelabras and her tree with the same ornaments she used every year. I see my cousins and their parents. I hear them. My grandfather’s voice, my aunt’s specific laugh, the rise and fall of conversation at the farm table in the kitchen. The smell of cigarette smoke sneaking into the familiar and singularly distinct smell of Granny’s green beans simmering on the stove, and turkey and mashed potatoes and corn and the celery and onion in the stuffing.

Because of photos from the Kodak Instamatic we used at Nannie’s, I remember who sat around the dining room table in her tiny house. I can hear the porcelain bell ringing, calling us to the breakfast feast. Angel biscuits, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs. On Dad’s side of the family, lots of older cousins provided me with people to look up to and emulate. I watched how they dressed, how the older girls wore their hair, how they talked to one another and to us younger ones. I remember them like that, how the photos in old boxes show me.

663b49e1-4202-4fe4-8f59-0ca92de74d3aA few years back, maybe six or seven years ago, I realized that my Polaroid and Kodak images likely didn’t match the memories and photographs of my immediate or extended family. Or my school mates in grade school and high school and college. Or in the churches we’ve served. Or how my children took in their childhood.

Standing there in a therapist’s office and grasping this truth was both liberating and sad. Sad, because I had not known or understood that any shared memories weren’t experienced in the same magical way. Liberating, because I was able to release the persons in my memories to be who they are as growing and evolving humans, as individuals with their own photographs.

My daughter bought a newer version of the Polaroid last month. I look at her photos and recognize in a fresh way that it’s just a piece of the whole, like any photograph.We take photos to remember, to mark the time so we don’t forget. We pull them out later. We laugh, perhaps mock our fashion sense. Or we cry and make note of a gift that was and is no more. I pray for a wide grace for photos I keep close. May I hold a grace wider still for the people in them, for the ways they perceive things, for the memories inside the frame, for the realities outside the frame, and for the host of things provoked at the sight of the images.

 

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Hope

I took the lid off the belt box that my grandmother used to store her nativity set. The scents of Nannie’s house still live in the box. Every year when I open it, I wonder if it will be the year that her house is replaced by our own house smells. With every movement of the tissues, a gentleness from my grandmother and all of the memories of her and her home rose up to my olfactory sensors.

A melancholy washed over me. I found myself tearful, though not fully crying, while I dug in the old papers to find each piece. The globe on my buffet served as the imaginary cave-turned-stable. In my mind, I carried on a conversation.

The first order of discussion was to acknowledge that the wise men were out of place, technically speaking. Historical documents place the arrival of the magi from the East nearer to the two-year old Jesus. I don’t have a ceramic rendition of toddler Jesus.

I positioned the three kings alongside the shepherd and his sheep, because, I reasoned, isn’t that like God to mix the wise and learned with what society and culture labels ordinary and outcast? My makeshift stable-place was getting crowded. All of the dirty animals and the unclean shepherds and the robed wise guys would have to lay aside any concerns about class distinctions.

Yes, I know that the baby Jesus nestled in the ceramic straw doesn’t make his entrance until December 25. Oh wait. I mean, later in the story, Jesus is born. But I placed him there anyway, right under the globe, an offering maybe. Or a prayer.

I gave the angel a post behind the animals, a quiet overseer and centurion to the sacred things unfolding in the world. Behind her, two doves hover on and over the communion chalice. img_4400

These placements mean something, I said. To myself, of course, and inside my mind. And I prayed for the world as I turned the globe so that Africa and Asia faced me. It’s all so fragile and full and broken and rich and tired and sad and frightening, I thought.

But, I went on, it’s Advent. This week carries Hope. I choose hope, I said. I choose the reality of the womb of a singular woman carrying the hope of the world. It’s ridiculous, I sighed. Joseph’s hand belongs on Mary’s shoulder, and I nudged him as close to her as possible to let him be a part of the mystery.

I imagined my grandmother’s hands handling the same pieces of the nativity. I imagined something holy being held together in the box and under the globe, something holy held together within me. In hope, I prayed out from Palestine and around the world.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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