Posts Tagged 'Anne Lamott'

Life, Death, Resurrection, Hope: An Epiphany Sermon

“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.       For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;                                    but the Lord will arise upon you,                                                                                              and his glory will appear over you.” (Isaiah 60:1-2)

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Change is hard.

Not to mention disorienting, sad and fearful. So often in life we think we some things are unquestionably constant, and certain, and it never even occurs to us that it can be different than they are, and then a piece of news can hit you, seemingly out of nowhere, like a bus, and suddenly, the world seems different and you don’t recognize your life anymore, and so you might as well go dye your hair purple! If you can’t fight it, might as well embrace it with something that makes you inexplicably happy, right?

This is literally what happened to me over the Christmas break. So, I am no stranger to these feelings. About a week before Christmas, a relationship that was very significant to me, and that I was very grateful for, and certain it was heading in a particular direction, suddenly ended. I did not see it coming, and was in shock, and was instantly propelled into a very deep and devastatingly painful place of darkness.

And in that darkness I had a choice to make. I could do what I have done in the past in moments of relational grief, which was stay in bed for a week with a tub of ice cream and a bottle of wine, re-watching Love Actually a million times, or, I could do what I’ve done at other times and become bitter and angry and write very nasty emails to this person and rant to my friends about what a horrible person this is.

Believe me, these are the things that I wanted to do, but I know from experience that those choices for me, only makes things worse. I’ve heard it said that in moments of pain, you can turn bitter or better. And if you turn bitter, you are wasting the pain. So, I decided this time, not to waste the pain. But to face it, and sit in it, and allow Jesus to carry me through it, and give my friends and family the opportunity to love and care for me, in a way that they did and has brought us closer together.

So this time, I followed the path that the Magi took, towards the Light, which always leads to God’s Very Real Presence, to God With Us, otherwise known as the baby Jesus.

So, at the advice of our dear Curate Philip Josseyln-Hamilton, I went to Saint John the Divine’s convent, for prayer, reflection, and to meet with a Sister, a nun, for spiritual direction and guidance. (OK actually, I spent ONE day in bed with Netflix and icecream, but THEN I got outta bed!)

The convent was a very nourishing and healing experience. The Sister looked into my eyes and said to me gently, “I know this is hard, and you are confused and scared and angry, but you won’t always feel this way. Everything will be ok. God loves you so dearly. And God is closer to you than the tears on your check. Let him carry you now, imagine him holding you in his warm and loving embrace.”

This was very helpful, but in my grief I said, “But I want to know why. I am so confused. Why would he do this? And maybe it’s my fault?”

And she said, “There will come a time when it will be helpful to ask those questions, and see what it is you can learn. But now is not that time. Now is the time to allow Jesus to embrace you, and take comfort in his whisper, “Everything will be ok. I love you.”

And this I did. Every time since then I felt the urge to question, or to analyze, or to rage, I simply returned to the image of Jesus holding me, telling me, “I love you. Everything will be ok.

And then she said to remember the second greatest commandment, which is to continue to get out of yourself, and love thy neighbor as yourself. And so, she said, at this time of year, which so much need and pain, who can you serve and love?

So I called my friend at Romero House, the refugee welcoming community in the West End of Toronto, and asked if they had any practical needs I could meet. They did. And so my parents and I decided to forego the stocking stuffers this year and pool our money into buying 17 pairs of winter boots, snow pants, and mittens for newly arrived refugee children. So we went on a Value Village splurge, which was very fun and awesome especially because I racked up lots of VV points so I got 30% off!

It was absolute elation to shop for these, and to tell the staff at VV who they were for, and then to deliver it to the kids. And scientific studies have confirmed this truth, one secret of those who are happy is they volunteer. They help people who have been hurt in similar ways to them, and by giving, you receive so much more in return.

I decided the next day to make my mother’s birthday the best one that she’s had, so I planned a surprise for her. And the next day I offered to fold bulletins for the church. And on Christmas day we volunteered again with Romero House, for their Service of Peace, hanging out with the refugee kids, and it was awesome.

And I got to tell you, by no means did the pain and grief disappear. It was and it is a times, still difficult. But my focus on the Light, on being purposefully aware of God’s loving embrace of me, and then allowing my community the opportunity to embrace me, and then turning around and embracing those around me, God’s Presence became very real, and it was like wearing a new pair of glasses. Everything seemed just a little bit clearer, my problem was put into a wider perspective.

It didn’t mean that I was suddenly cured of grief, and I continue to grieve and I know in the midst of my confusion, more shall be revealed.

But that’s the thing about Light. So often we are not given a blazing Sun that Illuminates Everything We Want to See. More often, when we are on dark, winding paths, and we do not know where it is taking us, the Light God’s presence provides is more like headlights, illuminating just enough for us to drive around just the next corner.

As Anne Lamott says in her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, “we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering.” She continues,  “we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross [like Mary], and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us….To be honest, that sucks. It’s the worst, even if you are the mother of God.”

Presence and solidarity with those who are suffering, without any cute platitudes like “God’s plan is perfect” — which only makes things worse — is hard, but it’s so essential and a good place to start.

But then what? Lamott continues:

Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it. We clean up beaches after oil spills. We rebuild towns after hurricanes and tornados. We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us even pray. Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope. The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbour, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry…we live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky.”

And I’m reminded of the words of the iconic Canadian poet Leonard Cohen, “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

And so, I encourage today friends, if you, or someone you know are in a place of shock, grief, confusion, sadness, or darkness, remember that “The Lord has not given you a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.”

Let us take our cue from the Magi, who followed the Light, and found that it led them to the Light of the World, God With Us, the One who can–and will–bring a sustaining and life-giving embrace of warmth, love, and hope.

Amen.

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So this is Christmas (War is Not Over)

Today is one of the days in the church calendar that I most appreciate – the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. During the 12 days of  Christmas, there is a day to remember that the birth of the Prince of Peace threatened the Roman Empire so much that it resorted immediately to the tool that marks every empire – violence. With a lust for power and control, King Herod ushered a decree that baby boys under the age of two be massacred, in hopes of killing the one who was deemed to be the true King. It was a state-sponsored infanticide, thousands were murdered, and the Holy Family fled as refugees.

As I’m writing this my nieces and nephews are squealing with delight as they run around and play with each other. The two youngest are under two years of age, and I cannot imagine the horror of an army coming around and murdering them in cold blood. (Later,  at the dinner table, I was discussing this article, and my dad asked why the “Holy Innocents” are so “Holy”. My 9 year old nephew wondered if it was because being holy is being set apart for God, and these infants died instead of Jesus, so they were set apart in heaven. Genius.)

My appreciation of this awful day might seem a little masochistic, but after the peace and beauty and joy that we’re all supposed to feel at Christmas (and I do often feel and love these things), I like being thrown back into the reality that for most people in the world, life is completely cruel and marked mostly by suffering. Because it’s authentic.

As I speak, violence is rising in the South Sudan and the newly formed country is quickly deteriorating – with hundreds of innocents slaughtered in the past two weeks and a friend of mine having to evacuate the country.

Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers drive in a truck in Juba, Wouth Sudan, December 21, 2013.

Sudan People’s Liberation Army soldiers drive in a truck in Juba, Wouth Sudan, December 21, 2013.

The number of Syrian refugees continues to rise well over the million-mark.

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border.

Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border.

Disaster is still wide-spread in the Philippines after the horrendous typhoon.

Children hold signs asking for help and food along the highway, after Typhoon Haiyan hit Tabogon town in The Philippines

Children hold signs asking for help and food along the highway, after Typhoon Haiyan hit Tabogon town in The Philippines

The empire of globalized capitalism consumes its slave-labour victims year by year.

Clothing garment factory in Bangladesh deemed "slave labour" "Against God" by Pope Francis

Clothing garment factory in Bangladesh deemed “slave labour” “Against God” by Pope Francis

In my own country of Canada, First Nations people were ruthlessly slaughtered and are still being perpetually thrown aside on their own land, their “reserves” more like majority-world countries, and their commitment to stewarding their land well by resisting the oil pipeline pushed by the settler state is ignored.

Charles Heit, a Gitxsan First Nation member opposed to the $5.5-billion Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat warms himself beside a fire at a camp outside the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton, B.C., on Thursday January 12, 2012.

Charles Heit, a Gitxsan First Nation member opposed to the $5.5-billion Enbridge oil pipeline from Alberta to the British Columbia port of Kitimat warms himself beside a fire at a camp outside the Gitxsan Treaty Office in Hazelton, B.C., on Thursday January 12, 2012.

This day provides the opportunity to cut out all of the bullshit that sometimes comes with Christmas – the other-worldly angelic joy, the commercialism of it all, the pretending that Christmas has saved us all – because it hasn’t…yet.

The Massacre was the introduction of what Christ was up against in his lifetime, and it is what we are up against in ours. For Christ there was a violent empire that when challenged, would not hesitate to kill and destroy all in its path, and the same is true for us. The penalty for following this Prince of Peace into the darkness and the suffering will ultimately threaten the empires that rule today (if we are doing it right), and hell hath no fury like a threatened empire.

So what to do?

As Anne Lamott says in her new book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, “we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering.” She continues,  “we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross [like Mary], and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us….To be honest, that sucks. It’s the worst, even if you are the mother of God.”

Presence and solidarity with those who are suffering, without any cute platitudes like “God’s plan is perfect” — which only makes things worse — is hard, but it’s so essential and a good place to start.

But then what? Lamott continues

Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it. We clean up beaches after oil spills. We rebuild towns after hurricanes and tornados. We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us even pray. Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice. The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope. The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbour, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry…we live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky.

Or, we can do something equally dramatic, and go be present with those most suffering in our world, and work with and for them in whatever way you are gifted and able.

For as my seminary professor of Ethics of Wealth and Poverty once said, every act of social justice (or simple kindness, in my opinion) is a foretaste and foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom of justice, peace, and flourishing for all.

So today, we remember. We educate ourselves, and others. We lament. We are present with the suffering. We get stitchin’.

But first, we let go of all of our sadness and meager attempts to God. From the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Amen.

What’s the Opposite of Writer’s Block?

Cuz I think I have it. Normally if I were to complain about anything to do with writing, it would be that the words just aren’t coming, that I don’t know what to write about, or that my Muse has gotten bored with me, rolled over, and gone to sleep. Or I would whine that I feel as though I have nothing new to say to a world that has an over-abundance of books, articles, magazines, and journals, and who the hell am I, anyways? Do I really have that different of a perspective, that fresh of insight, that exotic of word choice combinations that can turn on the lights for someone in a way no one else’s can?

But now the problem is – if someone who is aspiring to be a writer can call it a problem – I feel as though I have too much to say and not enough time to get it all down. Not to mean that all of the ideas that having been flashing around in my brain – for books I want to write, or articles or essays or stories – not to say that any of these are incredibly fresh or insightful, it’s just that I’m being compelled to write them all down, by something, or Someone – outside of me. In other words, for the first time in my life, I’m completely convinced that I am actually going insane.

Now I’ve always felt somewhat insane before, when I’ve been depressed or over-dramatic or OCD about this or that or whatnot. But lately, well, I’ve been getting flashes of words, sentences, images, ideas, and I feel like I must write them down as quick as possible before I lose them. For instance, I keep getting rather witty chapters titles for a book I’m writing on LOST (which I had written here originally but a smart friend told me to take ’em out so no one could steal them -blogs aren’t copyrighted). I also want to write an essay on my pilgrimage to India last year, about beautiful experience of getting joy etched into the flesh in my back forever, about my brother who listens to Christian rap while programing software for para-church fundraising campaigns, about my compulsion to spew venemous hate at anyone who disagrees with my political-economic leanings (why do I do this?), and so on and so on. I want to write about it ALL. But I don’t have time. So I write nothing. Except for the illegible scribblings of a madwoman in her journal.

It all started on that fateful day when I decided to not take the one-week intensive course that was required for my program in International Development, and go instead to the 4-day Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College this past April. I remember seeing the online ad that my friend Justin had sent me – Justin who I taught English with in Korea with for 2 years. He knew I loved writing so he sent me the link to the Festival’s website. But he didn’t know how much the thought of writing secretly terrified me. Being a writer means sure rejection, I thought. Who’s gonna want to read anything I write? I have nothing new to say. But the website was pretty – with various shades of calming, pale greens and budding vines and fancy calligraphy spelling out The Festival of Faith and Writing – and it totally got my heart beating, like jungle drums. And then it beckoned me saying, You must come.

So naturally, I did what anyone else would do who thought they were hearing voices. I went outside on my back porch and smoked a clove. (Now I know smoking is terribly, terribly bad for your health, but these cigarettes are light brown, like cigars – and taste like Christmas – cinnamon, cloves, sugar and spice and everything nice – so I justify one every once and a while.) This little ritual is always a way for me to calm the eff down, think, and pray. I thought about the keynote speaker – Eugene Peterson – whose poetic and fresh translation of the Scriptures I’ve read for years that basically saved my salvation. And I thought about my favourite author Anne Lamott who told me in her book Bird by Bird that in the case of writing and life, I must always be milantly on my own side. For I’ll always have more than enough critics, and I don’t need to be one of them. I’ve got enough problems as it is without adding to them by my own hand.

I thought about my school program, a Masters of Theology in International Development, and how while I loved the poor and wanted to always help them, I had a deeper passion that had been in me for far too long, and I could no longer suppress it. By going to this Festival of Faith and Writing, this mammoth conference with over 500 writers and poets and literary agents and publishers from around the globe, and over 2000 visitors each year, by choosing this over the required course for my program, I was saying no to this International-Development-as-a-career-choice  and yes to my true first love – writing.

Terrifying shit, huh? Well at least for me. It was a decision of epic proportions, because it would also mean that I was naturally going to have to change schools, and go to my first love in terms of graduate schools – Regent College in Vancouver, for its program in Christianity and Culture, which would be so up my alley if I wanted to write – especially about the intersection of faith and culture, which kind of lights me up inside. This decision would mean that I would be moving away from the community that I had grown to love in Toronto, and that was a painful thing, since I had felt like I had begun to get to know people on a deep, relaxing, can-just-be-myself sort of level. But I knew that it must be done, cuz who wants to say no to a creepy but authoritative voice that you hear in your head? What if it knows how to use a shotgun?

So I signed up, and asked several of my friends to come, but naturally everyone was busy so I went alone – took a 13 hour bus ride to Grand Rapids, which was only 6 hours away, but I like bus rides way better than driving.  Besides lessening my ecological footprint, they allow me to look out the window and listen to Sufjan Stevens while day-dreaming about my latest boy drama situation and how everything would just turn out great if he would only realize that I was the most beautiful, wonderful woman on the planet and he could not live without me.

Arriving at the Festival in sunny Grand Rapids, the spring birds were chirping, the tulips were waking up, and it was warm enough for sandels and I was mad I didn’t bring any (the last time I was in Grand Rapids for the overwhelmingly-depressing Faith and International Development Conference, it was blizzardy, and so this time I came over-prepared for cold weather). But regardless, I was convinced it was the first day of the rest of my life. Even though I was surrounded by strangers, I knew from the first session that I was home. I had found my people, and there is not enough words in the English language to describe how or why I felt this – I just did. Every single session was inspiring and intellectually stimulating, I used up like 4-5 pages of my journal taking notes on each one. The people were all artsy and scholarly and funny – just like me! I made at least a dozen new friends. The creative juices flowing in the air, the people longing  to wrap their ponderings and sufferings in prose, those who loved to be swept away by a good story, those who loved to be the ones offering that human connection, that communion – it was stunningly beautiful – and my heart did not stop pounding all weekend.

As I came to learn, the problem with my old way of thinking about writing was this: I felt like I needed be an really really incredibly wise or knowledgable about something in order to write about it. I felt like everything I wrote had to have a message, or offer hope, or offer redemption or deliver some wise eternal spiritual truth. But as so many wise, seasoned writers reiterated throughout the Festival, to write well you must follow this one essential rule: Write the things which you have seen. True writing is not necessarily about teaching something you already know, it is about observing, with utmost precision, life as you have experienced it, and then describing what you see back to the world the best as you know how.  It is about telling your story as honestly as you possibly can, and learning more about what is buried deep within you the more you write. It is about honoring the human experience by recording  your take of it as accurately as you are able. It is writing about moments or ideas or feelings in a way that simply rings true. We must not write in order to heal, to teach, or bring redemption. We must instead write as truly and honestly and passionately as we know how, and because it is real, it may end up bring healing, provide inspiration for others, or offer redemption. (But it may not, and that has got to be ok too.) But if we try to write with healing, teaching, and redemption as our primary goal, it may come out forced – and that is not writing, that’s typing.

This one rule, this line, Write the things with you have seen, literally opened the floodgates for me. I might not be an expert on anything, or feel like have a “fresh perspective” or whatnot, but I have lived. And I because there is no one else in the history of humanity that is exactly like me, nor will there ever be, I do have a unique story to tell: my story. The story of my childhood schoolyard traumas or down-the-ravine adventures, or why peeled bananas make me feel exposed, the story of abandonment and isolation I felt while teaching in Korea or how volunteering in Kolkata brought me back to joy, the story of how the sweeping epic narrative that is LOST makes me want to give God (and Desmond) a big polar-bear hug. I have a story to tell because I am part of the larger story that belongs to all of us, we who get to live this wondrous, confusing, painful, ridiculously baffling, and beautiful thing we call life.

So in the midst of all of my newly found and beloved insanity, won’t you join me on the journey?

—-

(Stay tuned for more writing to come)


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