Category Archives: faith

Praying without words

Somewhere around Thanksgiving I decided to try starting my day (again) with lectio and silence.  No matter how pressed I feel for time, when I get to my office or when I scoop up Lucia and head to the porch, I try to lend some space for breath and nothingness and silence.  Here I am in August and I’m still doing it, so there’s something.  But the reason I’ve been practicing some form of centering prayer for over a decade now is not because I’m good at it or because it’s easy, but because as with any discipline, it reminds me what a spiritual novice I really am.

Case in point: for several years after Lucia was born, because she needed and loved (and still loves) to be held, I struggled to find just ten minutes a day when my hands were free to sit in silence.  But in the last ten months, I’ve finally realized something: I’m much better at praying when I’m holding Lucia.  If I’m in my office alone, like I was this morning, I’m surrounded by my books and my responsibilities and distractions, and when an idea comes to me, my hands are instantly busied, trying to scratch down that idea on paper before it flees.  My eyes flutter open and my attention floats away from prayer to the day ahead of me.

But if I’m holding Lucia, I can’t use my hands.  When my eyes open or rest upon something, they often rest upon her, subtly bringing me back rather than away from the intention of it all.  Lucia’s voiceless expectation, the hopeful way her eyes dart and wander and peek up at me lead me back to the very present act of holding her, and being with one another–and our just being with God.

What I often count as an aberration, an intrusion from the true beauty and solace of our backyard view of nature–the screech of a large truck coming to a halt or a car horn blaring–Lucia accepts with diligent curiosity, reminding me just how fickle and narrow my own attempt at spirituality can be.

Indeed, it is only through this quiet discipline that I’ve come to realize that acceptance, such willful abiding in God’s presence, is anything but passive.  Rather it’s what I continue to yearn for after all these years, and that God has placed beside me a great spiritual teacher in my tender daughter is not so much a great irony, but a sweet revelation. I’ve always believed that you do not need words to pray, yet even my own beliefs can assert themselves so willfully that the prayer become secondary.  But I’ve never so palpably felt the resonance and profundity of that quiet as when I’m in God’s presence with Lucia alongside me.

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Morning prayer with Lucia on the porch.  My photo.

And would you believe it?  My second prayer word that I’ve been wrestling and striving toward all these years so ungracefully and confusedly is none other than abide.  And in leading me away from myself and toward attention to others, to my world, and to God, God continues to urge me to appreciate and learn from different ways of being.

Different ways of being that are good and perfect gifts.  Different ways of being that are of God.  Different ways of being that change us for the better, that lead us to learn from such wordless, sanctified offerings of pure, unadulterated delight that God has so generously made.

 

 

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How it feels to be free

As we roll Lucia away from the face painting station on Saturday, a bright blue and yellow seahorse on her flushed cheek, I overhear the student ask the next little girl who’s climbed up into the chair how old she is.  “Four,” she replies effortlessly.  “Oh, you must be in preschool then?” the woman asks.

Lucia is four.  Lucia is in preschool.  But she doesn’t climb up on chairs or talk.  I rather marvel at the young girl’s speech and motor-skills until I remember that my kid is the one people sometimes describe as “really disabled,” that my kid is the one who’s developmentally behind, delayed, atypical.  It’s only in brief dissonant moments like these that I sense that my kid might be “other” to someone else or that our life might be considered atypical, because of course, to me, she’s just another four year-old with face paint, and we’re her parents.

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Face paint, complete with a smile.  My photo.

But I’ve often felt like I’ve glimpsed something other-worldly in my daughter when she laughs, because the giggles tumble so uncontrollably out of her taut little body, erupting out of her, they seem to send ripples throughout the room.  When we’re in public, I love to catch people, especially otherwise grouchy looking people, finding those giggles downright contagious, moved by the pure joy of the sound of her laughs, the generous, inclusive flash of her wide smile.  She lacks words, but in these moments words are obliterated, unnecessary.  She can’t really move on her own from her wheelchair and yet when Lucia laughs with true abandon, completely undeterred by anyone else around her, it strikes me that she is uniquely, utterly free.

Earlier that Saturday morning when Lucia and I sit there lazily in the living room, still in a stupor from a sleep study we completed the night before at a hospital an hour away from home, my husband says something astounding.  He reminds me, the anthropologist, that the oppressing milestones of developmentalism inflict not just stress, but moral judgment on many a parent.  Feeling as though it is up to you to usher your child through life’s varied stages with utmost precision is constraining and exhausting.  And by that yardstick, our four year adventure in parenting is one colossal failure.

 

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Lucia at her sleep study.  My photo.

But then, we’ve also been set free.  

We live life and we parent simply for the joy of it all.  We don’t worry if we’re doing it right, because all we can do is seek comfort and happiness for our girl.  We’re hurt when she hurts, of course, and there are times we wish we could fix things that we can’t.  That pain that she feels and that hopelessness that we often feel are not to be understated. And yet, because of all the things we can’t do as parents and perhaps some of the things Lucia can’t do herself, we’re also very free.

We can’t hardly do anything but love her, and so we do, one joy-filled day at a time.

And it’s weird, precisely because Lucia does so little, I feel like it’s easier not to get lost in what she does, but to get to know her for who she is–a generous, patient, gregarious little soul–and it reminds me that none of us are the sum of our accomplishments anyway.  So why do we let ourselves treat our kids that way?  As if life is mostly gain and growth, when they’re all we’ve ever wanted, just as they are.  Maybe it’s because deep down we’re not sure we’re really enough just as we are as people and parents.  We could always be doing more, right?  We are our own enemies of freedom, our own robbers of joy.

But before you say that we’re extraordinary or that Lucia’s extraordinary (okay, well that may be true!), let me tell you something else: there’s little in life that we actually control and when it comes down to it control is not at all what it’s cracked up to be.  What’s extraordinary is that in a world of such chance and circumstance and chaos, we three get to live life together.  We get granted these moments of joy and freedom that are other-worldly and grace-filled.

Now as a Christian, I tend to think joy is a gift from God, but whether you’re a person of faith or not, you may be able to agree that joy seems to come from elsewhere and only deigns to nestle itself between people with audacious graciousness–it’s always granted, never earned.  That’s the one thing I guess we’ve come to understand about parenting, too.  Its freedom is granted, but it also requires our willingness to let go of all the things we think are so important to receive it.  I’m sure it may look like many of those things have been stripped from us, wrested from our control in becoming Lucia’s parents, but I just don’t see it that way.

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Lucia smiling outside during spring.  My photo.

Because when Lucia’s gone, I doubt I’ll remember or cherish how well she stood in her stander, how efficiently she swallowed bites of puree, or even mimicked the sounds of our voices, but I’ll never forget the sound of her laughter.  I’ll pine for it, like I pine for nothing else.  And I’ll pine for the way that laughter bid me to laugh alongside her, when I wouldn’t have had the courage to laugh with such abandon on my own.  Without Lucia, I wouldn’t be a parent.  Learning to love Lucia, I, too, have been set free.

 

Telling my story

The other evening a few of my friends indulged me in asking about my summer research project on disability and joy.  I yammered on a bit about my excitement about what I might learn from families with persons with disabilities who are nonverbal, and then my husband spoke up.  He talked about the presumed extremes and edges for families raising children with disabilities, especially children with rare and life-threatening conditions like ours.  “Either you’re at one extreme, devoting all your time and energy into fighting this disease and finding a cure, or you’re slumped over on the couch, defeated and depressed, resigned and remorse that life is so cruel and painful.”

Of course, I’m paraphrasing.  Although my husband has spoken of these extremes often, down to the very way he first framed our public announcement of Lucia’s diagnosis, I’m not sure it had ever occurred to me how these hostile extremes prey upon and distort the reality of life as we know it with Lucia.  Why didn’t I think to frame my project this way, I thought?  After all, isn’t it this insidious framing that makes the pairing of “disability and joy” so presumably unexpected and rare?

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Part of the announcement we made about Lucia back in 2015                                        (click here to link to the WHYY story).

These stereotypes about parents of kids with special needs, made it and continue to make it really hard for me to open up as Lucia’s been in a really trying and uncertain period of feeding intolerance as Lucia’s been in a really trying and uncertain period of feeding intolerance. In our first ethnographic interview for the project this week, one of the parents spoke eloquently about the burden of communication that’s placed on she and her husband to keep the world appraised of her child’s medical status and progress report.  A few weeks ago on a Sunday where I’d finally resolved to open up about how overwhelmed my husband and I felt about Lucia’s feeding difficulties, I quickly found myself sandwiched between two platitudes–the one about God giving special kids to special parents and the other about kids being able to overcome their disabilities with hard work, and I just wanted to scream.

When well-meaning friends jump so quickly to wishing life was otherwise for us and striving to help we and Lucia overcome all her challenges, I feel shortchanged and silenced, because it starts to feel like our life’s everyday difficulties come as such disappointments to others, and then I feel the burden of having to help others find narratives of progress amidst our very chronic, circular story.  Of course you wish the best for us, but when that comes at the cost of your narration and my silence, I can’t help but feel you’re wishing away so swiftly and expertly the difference between us, without acknowledging that that difference is where my family and I live.  I know it may sound harsh, but in these moments I often feel as though people would rather experience my family’s thriving or failing as a spectator sport, watching from a distance, finding some sentimentality in it, and then going back to their regularly scheduled lives, buffered by that comfortable (manmade) chasm between us and our seemingly very different realities.

I’m aware that neither my humble ethnographic project nor my blog posts can suddenly or significantly alter the cultural scripts surrounding families with family members with disabilities (let alone people with disabilities, especially people who are nonverbal, but that’s for another post…), but I do believe there is great power in helping families tell their stories as they want them to be told.

When I came home from church that evening a bit emotionally battered and bruised, I thought about why those conversations stung so much.  They stung because the truth was that amidst great hardship, I didn’t feel that things were just hard on the eve of Lucia’s fourth birthday, I also felt exceedingly grateful.  And so I began to write parts of this post and I resolved to try again.  Yet another Sunday, I told my story with its mix of grace and hardship and beauty and pain and joy, oh yes, deep, resounding joy, to a few members of another family during coffee hour.  I remember the concerned look on their faces, their heads nodding, I don’t remember much of anything they said, but I certainly remember how I felt.  To be accepted as I was, not really by their words, but by their nods and their faces and their hearts, was like a balm to my soul.

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Resounding joy.  My photo.

They did me the honor and ministry of letting my story hang between us, but what may have been slightly uncomfortable to them felt so freeing and resonant and powerful to me.  I realized that I have tentatively decided to share my story on this blog over and over not always even so that others can understand, let alone feel better, but so that in this swarming world that buzzes and pulses and consumes and compresses my daughter’s life into sound bytes and platitudes and pity, I can simply hear my own voice.  I know it sounds selfish to put it that way, but perhaps the battle that parents with kids with disabilities are fighting is not primarily one against disease or difficulties but against the perception that their kids lives don’t matter or that their kids aren’t like other kids or their families aren’t like other families, because they can be summed up in stereotypes that pronounce their differences in cruel, inhuman ways.  The isolation isn’t primarily physical but social, one where you find yourself telling a story that should be yours but that either no one else wants to hear, or everyone else wants to narrate, resolve, and redress for you.

But stories always have more complexity, a life of their own, and depth beyond what we can ever imagine.  They’re just one more fabulous aspect of what makes us human–that we all have a story to tell.

Thank you for letting me share some of mine.  And thank you, most of all, for really hearing it.

 

 

Lent just in time

I realized that it’s only fitting that I started blogging again yesterday during Lent, because as history serves, Lent has lent (I just can’t help with the puns…you know Easter is on April Fools, right?!) a good portion of inspiration.

So I’ve compiled, just in time for Good Friday, a dose of Lenten posts for your contemplative reading.

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Egyptian wilderness.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

I pray that this season has been meaningful and full for you and that you find so much comfort and hope and peace even at the sight of our wounded savior on the cross.  May we linger on that cross and the grave with renewed passion and waiting and expectation of the hope to come on Easter Sunday.  Amen.

Deeply Needy, Deeply Grateful

The God of Silence

Thanking God for the woes

Everyday Listening

Forgoing Security for Faith

Practicing Gratefulness

An Invitation to Listen

Dirt

Where is the Joy?

 

What I learned in 2017

Looking back, 2017 on the blog will be remembered as the year I broke my silence, the year my writing became resistance.  Only a year prior, I’d begun sharing Lucia’s story, but this year, that personal side of politics became something that as a mother, a pastor, and a professor who studies disability, I just couldn’t remain quiet about.

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Speaking at an event at Princeton University.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But as much as there is to share about what I’ve learned this year, there’s thanks in order to you, dear readers, for hanging in with me throughout all the feelings and frustrations and for your own listening ears, your caring, and your advocacy.  Whether you’re a new reader, or you’ve been around for awhile, thank you for sharing our family’s struggle.  I certainly hope you’ll let me know which posts continue to resonate with you, what you like best and what you like least about the blog, what you’ve learned in 2017 and what you’re looking forward to in 2018.

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Love these two.  My photo.

Here is a look back in hopes that these lessons learned from the year prior will carry us forward in making this world more just, more healthy, more good, and more compassionate:

1.  Resistance is not just about marching and advocating, but writing, educating, and bridging the divides between us.

2.  It’s easy to underestimate people with disabilities, even for parents; thank God the joy God has given Lucia defies all odds! (And she is still loving school!)

3.  Unfortunately, people with disabilities cannot take healthcare for granted, but thank goodness for your advocacy this year!

4.  I’ve loved using the Enneagram as a tool to understand myself and those around me better.

5.  I’m so grateful for the differences God has made in all of us.

6.  “My Baby Wasn’t Born Healthy and Her Life Still Matters.”

7.  We must to learn to see differently.

8.  Christian calls for unity must not undermine difference.

9.  I fight because we are a Medicaid family and healthcare is about human dignity.

10.  There’s nothing like a little silence.

11.  And I will not give up in 2018!

(And a look back at What I Learned in 2016 if you’re so inclined…)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something different

Do you like podcasts?  My current favorites are Happier in Hollywood, By the Book, GymCastic, and Pod Save America.

Well, I was pretty intimidated, but I recently gave an interview on Princeton Seminary’s new podcast, The Distillery.  You can listen to my interview, “The Gift of Difference,” by clicking here.

Give The Distillery a rating on iTunes and thanks for your support!  And leave me a comment below to let me know if you liked it or you have any questions.

Also, check out the conference on Disability and Youth Ministry I’m speaking at and helping to host in Princeton next February (mentioned at the end of the podcast) here.  Please come!  We need your perspective!

It’s nice talking to you for a change.  More in 2018…

 

Why we can’t support this tax bill

I have something to admit.

On Saturday morning, after weeks of seeing proposed changes to this tax bill and fighting against the disastrous impacts it could have on people with disabilities, people who are sick, and people who are poor, I got lost in the numbers.  You see, as I started to comb through the final outline of the bill, I started to wonder whether it was really all that bad.  It does seem to be providing more generous tax cuts to many more people than initially forecasted.  It’s possible cutting taxes for corporations could create economic growth.  And they did remove some of the truly egregious aspects–taxes on graduate student tuition, while expanding medical expense deduction thresholds.

But then I scanned the text for the lectionary the following morning—Isaiah 61:1-4, which reads:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn; 
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

And I was reminded that our God is a God of justice (by Isaiah, because he says so, in verse 8).

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Church under construction in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

So tax bills, especially for us Christians, aren’t a matter of crunching the numbers but of seeing the bigger picture, and we simply cannot support policies that cut taxes for the wealthiest among us while ignoring the plight of the poor.  Numbers aren’t just numbers.  They represent people.  And people who are struggling should be prioritized over tax cuts to those who are wealthy.

But that’s not what our government wants us to think.  

Our government wants us to believe that by helping the rich, we can all help ourselves, that not everybody needs or deserves health insurance, that Puerto Ricans aren’t entitled to the benefits of other citizens, and that poor children don’t deserve healthcare as much as rich ones.

But just stop for a moment and think about why you pay taxes and who you want those taxes to serve?  Our family moved to a high-tax district but one that we knew would support Lucia’s special needs at school in spite of the cost, and I’m so thankful that those who live around us are willing to pay more so children can get a good education.  Our family also benefits from services through the Medicaid program that is funded by federal and state tax dollars to support people with disabilities, people who are poor, and people who are old, especially those who have substantial medical need for daily living.  Many elderly people who are sick and disabled benefit from the substantial Medicare program that threatens to be cut to support this bill.

So here we are again, cutting benefits for people who really need them, so rich people and corporations can get a tax break.  For a moment, I accepted that there could be some breaks for all because that’s what the government is saying, but that’s not only fuzzy math, it’s fuzzy morals.  Our taxes can’t pay for the things people really need and give huge breaks to the wealthy, and what’s more, they shouldn’t bother with making the rich richer, ever, because it’s wrong.  The Old Testament prophets and Jesus, whose birth we celebrate in this season, make it clear that Christians are called to liberate those who are oppressed and to bring good news.  This tax bill is not good news and we cannot ignore our responsibility, as unpopular as it may be, to speak otherwise.  We cannot turn mourning into gladness unless justice is justice for all.

Wake up, American Christians, it’s almost Christmas, and we have work to do.

The wisdom of percolation

The other week a colleague and I did a presentation for Ph.D. students about the job market.  She told them that when she started looking for jobs her own adviser told her that it’s not that difficult to find job, but to find a job that leads to or amounts to a career takes about four to five years on average in academia.

I could see the desperation and disillusionment in the students’ eyes, but deep inside, I sighed a bit.  Her words reminded me that we so often look at others around us and all we see is where they are now, the fruits of their hard work, and we assume things came quickly and easily to them, probably—no–definitively, more quickly and easily than they came for us.

But what if that’s not the truth?  What if I reminded you today that good things take time?  And that the good things that others have, those took time, too.  

See, despite my sigh, I saw myself in the eyes of those students.  Here I am not even three months into my new job and I’ve been beating myself up a bit, because I haven’t made it around to all that much of my writing, I don’t have a clear three-year vision for this appointment, and I’m not sure what role I can or should play in institutional change.

But it’s been three months.  

And my expectations crammed into those short months, for the next three years, reek of impatience, perhaps even faithlessness.  I wouldn’t expect to take a new job in a church and within three months implement dramatic changes.  No, I’d recognize and routinize the value in listening, observing, taking in what’s God is and has already been doing before ploughing boldly ahead.

So I’m drawn these days to something like the wisdom of percolation, to recognizing and valuing that if we people work hard for years beneath the shadows, then surely God needs time to work, too.  That perhaps we’ve got it all wrong: time is not against us, but for us, in that it takes time to understand, to learn, and to grow, and God wants us to have and to hold and to enjoy that time with God.  I would and can afford that time to my students, but it’s a bit more difficult when it comes to me.

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Fall in Washington, DC.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m right where I need to be.

Maybe you are, too.

Thanks-giving

I can’t tell you how often these days my husband and I are brimming with joy as parents.

Every time our daughter smiles and giggles and babbles her sweet sounds, life–nearly four years of it together now–just doesn’t get any better.  Indeed, when I look at photos like this, Lucia’s face pink and scarred from laying her cheeks in stomach acid night after night when she couldn’t tolerate her feed, I think just how far we’ve come.

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…and smiling through it all!

But a lot of things have also stayed the same.

Lucia still needs a tube to feed during the day and overnight, she’s still prone to seizures, she’s having trouble breathing, and she’s scheduled for major surgery in 2018.  Our family equilibrium isn’t typical, and it doesn’t come from a respite from medical complications, technological procedures, or nursing interventions.  Rather, it is those very things and an incredibly spirited three-year old that often makes life so much fuller, grander, and more beautiful than we ever could have imagined.  Ever since we got private duty nursing through Medicaid when Lucia was about a year and half old, not only her cheeks, but her lungs, her digestion, her joints, her nutrition, and her mood have all shown such growth.

In this season of thanks, we have so much to be thankful for.  

And yet, I’d be lying if I told you that 2017 wasn’t anything but an incredibly trying year.  In the midst of all of Lucia’s persistent health challenges, we’ve also faced major threats to her healthcare and provisions for people with disabilities all year long.  Living life with this constant threat hurts more than the uncertainty we face with Lucia, because it’s complete manufactured and manmade.

And  I can’t help but think about how the spirit of this Senate tax bill seems so out of sorts with this week’s cherished American tradition.  They call it Thanksgiving, because it was one of the Pilgrims’ first corporate acts of giving thanks for the good harvest.  And while the stories we tell our children about the miraculous sharing of a feast between the white colonialists and the Indians may not be entirely accurate, they reflect an idealized notion that thanks must be freely given and cannot be readily given unless there is peace, justice, and provision.

So this week, the prospect of giving thanks when so many are facing the looming possibility of losing their healthcare, people who are poor and hungry will suffer because of the bill, and people with disabilities will lose benefits and supports because of it, seems downright trite and inhumane.  I wonder if when we go to celebrate this week, we might practice yet another storied, American tradition–that of patriotic protest, dissent, and advocacy and urge those we love and those around our tables to give as we give thanks.

You give to my family every time you make a phone call to your senator and tell them that people with disabilities shouldn’t suffer so that this country can save money.  You give to my family when you pay your taxes and portions of those taxes go to programs like Medicaid that support nursing care, medical coverage, and medical equipment for kids like Lucia who are deemed too costly by private providers.  And you give to families, especially those who find themselves in need this season, when you make clear that we cannot celebrate tax cuts when the poor get poorer and the hungry go hungrier.

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Miss Lucia laughing in her stander.

If this truly is not just the season of giving thanks but also of giving, then let us gather together to make not just my cup, but every cup of every parent in this country overflow with gladness.  None of our journeys are typical, but that’s what makes this country so great.  Let’s not let a few hard-hearted people in Washington make it otherwise, especially on Thanksgiving.

And from the bottom of my heart, for all your phone calls, prayers, and support,

thank you.

 

Dusting off the prayer cobwebs

My first centering prayer word was grasp.

It was worn, tested, tried, and true.  I repeated it probably millions of times over those earlier years when I first fell in love with the spiritual discipline of silence, of making room for God to move in ways that involved only clearing my mind, cultivating a space, and ushering in a countercultural reverence for stopping when the world refused to stand still.

But abide, my second prayer word that I adopted only a few years ago, seemed to signal real growth and maturity.  Instead of so presumptuously grasping for God or even sagely realizing it is God who grasps for us, abide was the mere act of being in God’s presence or letting God’s presence wash over me.  I was proud of the attention, discipline, and even inaction it signaled, the way it chafed against a busy world, busy lives, a busy me.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve never really been able to get my mind around this word, why I’m not so good at abiding, or even praying about it.

I confess that recently my abiding has become dusty and decrepit, just like my centering prayer practice, beholden and bent to the cluttering of my life in which I’ve allowed little space for anything other than tasks and work and running–little space for silence, breath, let alone God.

But there have been healthcare battles to fight, I rage in earnest!  There have been surgeries, and new jobs, and mourning, and real kingdom work, God.  You know where I’ve been.  You know my heart.  Surely my absence means little to you.

And yet, in the recesses of my soul, God whispers more countercultural wisdom–that more can even be done with less rigor and muscle and strength.  That, just as it’s been in the deliciousness of these last few mornings, when I’ve sat idle, letting the waking silence wash over me, I’ve felt most refreshed, most awake, most alive.

There’s this mystery about life with God, how when we resort to doing wholly nothing, that nothingness becomes holy in its luxury and extravagance, a sacrifice, an intention, a heartiness that can’t be achieved or earned and is yet, so much purer and better and good than all my blustery days.  And that openness gives life and purpose and wisdom to our work and our justice and our advocacy–it exceeds us, because it so importantly comes for God and not from us.

Perhaps that Mary Oliver line should read, what is it that God will do with our wild and precious lives?

Or at least that’s what I yearn to surrender to.  For it is God who eternally waits on us, in silence, abiding in perfect patience, ever exceeding us lavishly with grace.

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A quiet morning on the beach with Lucia.