Sunday, May 22, 2016

What I've learned, or not


Lately I've been waking up in the middle of the night, around 3 or 4 usually, and just...lying there. Insomnia's not that unusual, I know, but it's unusual for me. Right now, in fact, I'm having a little bit of it--11:58pm and my eyelids haven't even started to droop. It seemed like a good idea to write.

I've been 30 years old for a whole three weeks now, plus a little extra. My friend Sydney and I wrapped up more than a month of celebration last night with her perfect gift to me: dinner at the Wild Olive, a restaurant that's been on my to go list for years and years. It was at least as good as I expected it to be, better. Then today we walked on the beach, made breakfast, lunch, and dinner, drank wine and watched a rom com (somehow the abbreviated version of that term makes it even more apt). A perfect couple of white women days, really. Sunned, sanded, and wiped out, I would expect to go right to sleep. Here I am, though, thinking, writing, lying here again.

Perhaps what has been giving me pause is the strangely anticlimactic feeling accompanying what everyone has assured me is a pivotal birthday. 30. Three decades, each one vastly different from the last, each inhabited by a different person, really.

My sister asked me a couple of weeks ago what I had learned during my twenties. I balked, then responded with an answer I probably shouldn't post publicly. She told me that by the time she turned 30, she had learned not to have more than three drinks in a night. Nope, haven't learned that lesson yet.

Since then the question has lingered in the back of my mind. What have I learned? Anything? Something, surely. Right?

Doubt is so much more a part of my life than ever before. College taught me to doubt, and divinity school imprinted that quality into my identity. Take nothing at face value. Always look again, and again, and again. When I think about what I've learned, doubt is the first thing that comes to mind.

Doubt doesn't seem like the best starting point for a list of lessons, but maybe what I've learned doesn't fit in a list. Lists are too permanent, or they try to make things so. Recently I was telling my mom that big decisions scare me because I've never been certain about anything, at least not for long. Depending on the day, my ambivalence has sometimes led me to embrace change but more often to flee from it. I may not be certain about what I'm already doing, but at least it's comfortable; at least it's already happening. I have inertia going for me, which is nice.

But on a good day, that doubt can take me in the opposite direction. It can remind me that nothing--not my resolve, not my circumstances, not my understanding--is final. Look again, it says. Try again. Reconsider. Change. Grow.

This brings to mind the book of Ecclesiastes, and particularly its oft-repeated claim about life: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."

That's an uplifting life lesson, right?

It's important to note that the word used for vanity in Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew hebel, which is often translated as "breath" or "vapor," indicating impermanence, futility, and delusion. But what else does breath point towards? Life.

That's it, really: what I've learned. It's all breath, or breaths, all uncertainty and change, failure followed by triumph followed by despair followed by joy. Mostly all of it wrapped up together, but in some kind of uncontrollable whirlwind rather than a neat package.


Maybe in another ten years I'll have a list. For now, this is about all I've got.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

next time


I’ve thought a lot of grace
on this windy, wintry day (wintry in the Carolina sense—
60, maybe, and gray).

Is this resurrection—
a dimness we cannot fathom, a mirror reflecting darkly,
an overcast spring day?

Perhaps this dimness is
all we can take for now, lit up about as bright as we can stand.
Grace given with more grace.

I want to believe this:
the world has a life of its own we cannot kill, not completely, 
despite our best efforts.

It will come back, for good,
and next time we’ll want it, greet it with open hearts and brimming eyes.
I can see it, almost.

For now, let it all go.
All of it. Empty yourself, turn back towards that far off spring, and
look, always look again.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Love, and wanting more

How do we love? How should we?

I remember having a conversation with, oh, someone…maybe a Sunday school teacher, or a friend, or a stranger or all of these. All I remember is that I was young.

“If God loves everyone and we’re supposed to love everyone, does that mean I can’t love my mom and dad more than someone I don’t know? Do I have to love everyone the same, no matter who they are or what they do?”

So many possible answers to this kind of question, and none of them satisfactory. Yes, we should love everyone equally; everyone is our neighbor, and aren’t we supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves? Or, it’s okay to love a few people in a particular, close, favorite kind of way; our families are where we learn to love, and it’s normal to love them more. Or, God pours out love especially on the people who need it, not necessarily the ones who deserve it, so shouldn’t we do the same?

I may not have known the term, but I was asking about agape here. That seems to be the love of choice in most churches, the love we say God shows, impartial love, love for everyone, love without expectation of return, of good behavior, of exclusivity, of any result.

We talked about this some in divinity school; of course we did. Love was always floating in the background of all of our conversations, the guiding principle behind all the theorizing and theologizing and wondering. I never got a good answer though to what the right kind of love is, though. I never heard anything final about anything, including love.

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. I was with my sister and brother-in-law and niece and nephew, and a friend in the morning. Lots of love, many kinds blended together. And yet, I still felt a sense of being left out, of missing something. I guess you could say I felt desire, a yearning for something more.

This led me to remember a class I took on suffering. (That’s not a punch line, at least not a purposeful one.) We talked a lot about suffering and love, love and suffering, the definite correlation and possible causation between the two. And we talked about desire, or at least I did in my last paper. I quoted Dorothee Soelle, a writer we read, a lot in that paper: “…unconditional love for reality does not in the least defuse passionate desires to change reality...unconditional love can allow itself the more absurd desires—it can pray for them and it can work for them, precisely because it does not make the existence of God depend on the fulfillment of these desires.” We might restate that as: love does not make the existence of love depend on the fulfillment of desire. We can declare our love for the world, for God, for our family and neighbors and lovers, and really, really mean it—and in the next breath proclaim our desire, our deep need, for change, for more and better love.

We don’t often think of God as experiencing desire, of wanting. Look at Jesus, though, and for that matter look at most of the history of Israel. God, Jesus, both cry out to their people, followers, priests, disciples, to strangers even, asking for more and better love. God loves us, and precisely because of that love, God wants us to live in a way that shows love to others; this is the only way forward, the only way we can understand what love is and what it can be.

My desires don’t always align with divine desires. In fact I’d say it’s a good day when a few of them sort of do. But isn’t that why desire is there in the first place—because things are off kilter, unfair, not quite the way they should be?

How do we love? How should we? Maybe I'm supposed to love everyone equally, without expectation, but, well, I'm not sure if that's going to happen anytime soon. All I can say is there is no one way, no right answer, no clear signpost, for love. There’s only us, trying to be for each other, trying to want and do good things for our world, trying to want what we think God, love, might want, and working to make those desires manifest. Let it be so.