To all of my friends on Valentine’s Day….may you remember how loved you are today.
I have loved you I have loved you with an everlasting loveI mended you together and I hemmed you into me
When you were made in the secret place
I loved you since your first breath I will love you to your last
From the cradle to the grave
I have always loved you deep and wide
Like the east to the west low and high
And I will always love you deep and wide
Like the east to the west low and high
If you make your bed in the depths love
If you make your bed in the depths
Even there I’ll be with you always
If you rise on the wings of the dawn settle on the far sea
If you’re there that’s where I’ll stay
And oh love take strength keep walking
You can lose it all but you’ll never lose this one thing
And oh love take strength keep walking
You can lose it all but you’ll never lose never lose
Kate Hurley- Piano, vocals
Dave Wilton- guitars
Keith Thomas- Cello
In my post called The Longing and the Mystery, I explored the German word Sehnsucht, defining it as “a longing for a far off country you have never been to.”
However, this word is complex and laden with nuances. Today I want to un-peel another layer of this fascinating emotion, looking at the side to it that CS Lewis describes in his book The Pilgrim’s Regress as
“That unnameable something, a desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead… the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.“
Close your eyes and now, placing yourself in some of the most beautiful moments of your life. If you are like me, you can recall how you felt in those places. A feeling that is not one hundred percent happiness and not one hundred percent sadness, but an intense mixture of both emotions. A beautiful and frustrating longing and satisfaction happening simultaneously.
For me, I am taken back to Gregory Canyon, where I have spent hundreds of hours in the last 10 years in Boulder praying and weeping and laughing, recognizing God was journeying with me through it all and acknowledging that he was walking with me. I am taken to the hospital room when my nephew was born and didn’t breathe for 24 minutes but survived. I am taken back to hiking through the alps in Switzerland, which was so beautiful that I thought maybe I was on another planet. Several times during that hike I gasped out loud and had a hard time breathing because it was so magnificent. I am taken to the incredible worship times I had in Ireland, so heartfelt and so raw, with young students that were learning what it meant to worship the living God, complete with the entire room spontaneously dancing and singing spontaneous songs and spontaneous raps. I was truly in awe of the spirit of God and the beautiful body of Christ. I am taken back to floating in a lagoon in Hawaii with a waterfall splashing before me and red beaches surrounding me. I am taken back to my friend Carson’s hospital bed where I sang over him in what was thought to be the last day of his life. (But wasn’t).
In every scene, the Sehnsucht was there. This sense of longing and beauty and hardship and depth and life and….God.
We were talking about this topic at Access, the wonderful spiritual formation group I go to in Denver. As we were trying to describe Sehsucht, I closed my eyes, seeing if I could define it better. I placed myself in some of the aforementioned scenarios. I willed myself to feel the Sehnsucht. I opened my eyes and raised my hand.
“It’s almost like I want to be one with whatever is surrounding me in those circumstances With nature, with that person, with life, with God. That’s where that deep longing came from. I wanted oneness.”
I came to find out that my friend facilitating the discussion was writing a dissertation on oneness, and that is what he thought defines Sehnsucht more than anything else.
This idea of longing for oneness runs through the romantic veins of our culture. We who are single long more than anything else to no longer be alone, to be one with someone else. Those who are married wish they could understand their mate better so that they could be closer to being one with them.
Oneness is also the blood that pulsates through our relationship with God. Some scholars believe the word religion comes from the root word religio which means to bind together (ligio) again (re). At the very heart of religion is the hope that the given framework will bind us together with God again. That it will facilitate us being one with him.
Communion is a perfect example of God’s desire to be one with us. Communion’s root words are with and union. Could there be a more obvious picture of God’s desire to live in us then eating his flesh and drinking his blood? When Jesus gave communion to his disciples, he was in effect saying “a new era is coming. Before now, you may have lived in God, but my cross will make a way for God to live in you.”
As Richard Rohr says “This is not pantheism (I am God), but it is orthodox panen theism (God is in me and I am in God).”
The distinction is so important. Pantheism is so lonely. There is no other. All humans long for an other. Any set of spiritual beliefs that doesn’t include an other will inevitably lead to despair, because we were created for relationship. Many of my new age friends that I work with would say that there is no God, rather all nature and all of us are one. They are right that oneness is beautiful. But they don’t often think about the fact that that belief system is incredibly lonely.
In Panen theism, however, we have the best of both worlds. There is an other, but we are in the other, and the other is in us. We are not alone, and ultimately we will be united with the being that loves us so deeply and so completely.
So the next time you experience sehnsucht, that holy longing, that inexplicable mixture of joy and sorrow and longing for home, remember how good it is to know that the God who loves you so fantastically and brilliantly has also offered for you to live in him and him to live in you. A mystery that none of could begin to fathom.
“You didn’t know him personally. Why are you sad?”
Those words have been going through my mind all week. I have been suppressing my emotions, because I’m not supposed to grieve over someone I don’t even know. Like countless others, Robin Williams played a part in the backdrop of my life. Dead Poet’s Society was my absolute favorite film when I was younger. It may be one of the reasons that I became a writer. (It is so sad now to think back on that movie and the centrality of a suicide in the plot line.) Good Will Hunting touched me on a very deep level since I have suffered through some of the same things as the main character in the film. I cried and cried right in the theatre when Robin Williams said to Matt Damon’s character “It’s not your fault…” And then there were so many other films of his that made me laugh…
But an actor of some of my favorite movies dying is not enough reason to actually grieve I thought.
Finally, I read some articles about Robin in Time magazine tonight, and I just started weeping as if he were my friend. And I let myself weep. I let myself grieve because, damn it, things are not supposed to end like this.
Have you ever wondered why death feels so wrong, so foreign, even though it surrounds us every day? It feels foreign because it is foreign. It is not what we were originally meant for. Even more so, suicide feels absolutely out of place, wrong. Never, ever, was life supposed to be so hard that we wouldn’t want to live it any more. It feels foreign because it is foreign. We were meant for life. We were meant for love. We were never meant to die alone.
The question that is so morbidly ironic that I am asking is
How could a man who has arguably made more people laugh than any other person in our generation be so sad, so very very sad, that he couldn’t make it through another day?
The world is asking that question as well. All we can say is that Robin Williams was a man of paradox. He could play a magic genie and make you laugh until your belly ached, or he could play a professor inspiring a class to live life beautifully and make you weep. He was weak and strong, sad and hilarious, childlike and wise.
Maybe part of the problem is that the world only wanted one part of his paradox. The happy, hilarious, endearing Robin. People didn’t know what to do with depressed, quiet, hurting Robin. “You make everyone laugh! How could you be sad?” They might have said. “You have everything in the world! What you could possibly be sad about?” The answer for Robin and me and the thousands of other people who have suffered from clinical depression? I have no idea why I am so sad in this season. I just am deeply, deeply sad, and I don’t know how to fix it.
If Robin was anything like me, he hated the sad part of him. It was the part that drove all the people he loved away. If he was anything like me he believed that when you take away the lights and the creativity and the stage, all you have left is this person that is just as unsure of himself as anyone else is. No one is expecting that person. And so they reject you.
I think what we all need to do for each other and do for ourselves is to accept our paradoxes. To love and accept ourselves and others before we are ever perfect. Because we never will be perfect.
I might say to myself “all right Kate. I am looking at the first side of you, the side that everyone likes. You are creative and musical and loving and wise. I accept and love all of that. But here is the other side, the one you try to hide. This is the side that gets deeply sad at times and has a hard time trusting and is rarely at peace. This is the side that people don’t often like. The side that you think is the reason people reject you. Look at me, weak Kate. You are beautiful too. You are valuable too. I love you. God loves you. You are precious.”
In Esther de Wahl’s book Living with Contradiction: An Intro to Benedictine Spirituality she says “This polarity, this holding together of opposites, this living with contradictions, presents us not with a closed system, but with a series of open doors…We find that we have to make room for divergent forces within us, and that there is not necessarily any resolution of the tension between them. I find it immensely liberating and encouraging to be told that this is the way things are, and that they way things are is good.”
Let me be clear here and say that I don’t think we should live in sin. We should always be trying to move from “glory to glory.” (2 Cor. 3:18.) But while we are striving to be more and more like Christ, we should have compassion on the parts of us that we don’t like. We should also do the same for others.
Last year, for about two months, I went through a horrible depression, worse than anything I had ever experienced before. There were hard circumstances, but nothing that could explain how drastic my emotions were. It was obvious that it was less of a circumstantial thing and more of a brain chemistry thing. I had to keep telling myself over and over again “there is something wrong with your body. It won’t be like this forever.”
I was on staff at a church at the time. They were incredibly supportive through this depression, but I still felt the need to hide. I was afraid people would say “how could she be this sad if she is trusting in God? Does she even deserve her position of leadership?” For the most part, I put on a fake smile and led worship without anyone knowing. I wonder how many times Robin Williams did the same thing?
I can say firsthand that our Christian culture often puts a lot of pressure on people to be happy. Just pray more. Just trust more. They joy of The Lord is your strength. Have more faith and you will be healed.
It is this kind of rhetoric that makes people hide their pain. It is this kind of thinking that over time produces inauthentic communities. It is this kind of pressure that eventually could lead to things as drastic as Robin Williams’ death.
If we are not careful to accept the paradoxes of the people we love, we will produce an entire generation that hides behind our happy facebook status’, like this guy…
To end this post, I’d like you to close your eyes for a while. Think about your own paradoxes. Think about the things in you that you dislike. The reasons you believe people have rejected you. Now let God come in and hold you. Let him tell you that you are accepted and loved and treasured, even in you weakest places.
We don’t want people in our churches despairing like Robin did. So let’s create a culture where we love ourselves and love each other, paradoxes and all.
Most of my friends know that I am a closet hippie. I have small gauge wooden earrings that I wear almost every day. I have long sun dresses that are all I wear in the summertime. I have the most beautiful watercolor tattoo ever that hasn’t yet escaped the recesses of my imagination for some odd reason. And I have come this close to getting dreads about a 36 times.
Maybe I need to come out of the closet completely and just embrace my hippie-ness. I think it’s really who I am. I have to ask myself why I am scared to completely be that person….but I should save that for another post.
This alter ego has been enhanced by my many years doing ministry at a large hippie gathering called the Rainbow Gathering. I have been going to the Gathering on and off for many years, and it is one of my favorite places in the world. It is a gathering of about 20,000 people in a different national forest every year that started in the early 70s, supposedly by a group of Jesus freaks.
But the gathering is not a Christian gathering…there are people from every faith you can imagine. The whole point of the gathering is to create a place of complete acceptance for everyone. There is no money exchanged, everything is bartered or gifted.
On the forth of July, all 20,000 people attempt to be silent until noon, praying for peace. Then there is an om around the peace pole after which everyone parties like crazy. There is a lot of nudity and drugs and such, but there is an even more abundant amount of love and a sincere search for meaning and spirituality.
Beautiful Fire Dancing
I have worked for years with a Christian kitchen called Bread of Life. We were one of the biggest kitchens at the gathering and fed thousands of people. The four older hippie couples that started our kitchen became like parents to me. Slowly, believing young people joined the kitchen and became my brothers and sisters. Six married couples came out of our kitchen in just about 10 years. (I guess it’s hard to find a marriable Christian hippie in normal life, so the gathering is the best place to find one!)
Many of those couples moved to Asheville, NC together because they were so like minded and it felt silly to be spread all over the country when they loved each other so much.
Bread of Life made free food for our Rainbow friends, we had wonderful times of worship, and we also had a prayer tent where we would ask God for words and pictures for people.
Here are a few highlights from the last few years.
1) The first time I led worship for all the Christian kitchens in the main meadow. A naked guy came and spit on the cross right in the middle of worship. Instead of freaking out, everyone started saying “bless you brother” and sharing testimonies of how God changed their hearts from hating religion to loving the real Jesus. Within a few songs, naked guy was amidst all of us, singing right along. I have heard he became a Christ follower afterwards, but I’m not sure if that is true.
2) The time this woman named Mama Love asked if their group could sing the first song during our corporate worship time in main meadow. I said of course! Then my papa Jody informed me that they were the leaders of a sex cult. Whoops! I didn’t know what to do and so we prayed and all of us felt like we were to let them sing. My friend said to me “only at a Rainbow Gathering would we be praying about whether a sex cult should open a worship service!” After they opened the service, they were so blessed that we allowed them to be a part of it that it opened a door for my papa Chuck to talk to them about why their beliefs weren’t biblical. They were convicted and ended up leaving the cult after being in it since the 70’s! (Incidentally, my song Wait On the Lord which was on Enter the Worship Circle was inspired by the song that they sang at the beginning of the worship service…)
3) Another worship circle at main meadow in which Grandpa Woodstock, a very strung out rail thin loveable old man who has been coming to the gathering for decades, put a pedestal in the middle of the circle, stood on it, and held up a peace sign. Thankfully, he was not naked that day, as he usually was. He was wearing a Santa Claus coat with a painting of him naked on the back of it. I wasn’t sure what to do, but we just happened to be singing “Pour out your love oh Lord, on your people….let it rain!” and I started singing “Pour out your love oh Lord, on Grandpa Woodstock….let it rain!” Everyone sang along at the top of their lungs. He was blissed out and practically crying and told me later that was the most loved he had felt in a long time.
4) Countless times in the prayer tent in which the words we got for people were so specific that they would say “how could you POSSIBLY know that?!” Many of them crying and crying.
5)By far the most beautiful memory, my dear precious brother Will, who was a Shauman at the time, having a radical encounter with God, getting baptized in a homemade stick-and-tarp baptismal, and having his life transformed. He has been a strong believer ever since then.
6) The next most beautiful memory ever, which was when Will and his bride Marie got MARRIED at a gathering two years after Will became a Christ follower. Our kitchen gave them a wedding. They spent like $40 on a unity candle and fabric for what they wore and we did absolutely everything else; bagpipes, hand drums, irish flutes, flower arches, flower crowns, cakes, middle eastern food, songs written for the wedding,sage crosses that hung from Marie’s wrist, hoopas- all of this was our gift to them and it was the most beautiful wedding I have ever been a part of. Never mind that I had to walk my dad past naked mud wrestling in the woods and there was some random hippie going right up to them to take pictures. It was still ridiculously beautiful.
7) Having “Christmas in July” in which my papa Jody put on a Santa outfit and yelled “Merry Christmas” everywhere he went. People streamed in…we made a nice dinner, everyone sang Christmas carols, and they listened intently as a message about the incarnation and Gospel was given in non Christiany language . We lit candles and sang silent night, then we passed out Josh Garrels CDs wrapped in ribbon that Josh had sent me on a whim to be used at the gathering that year. (Thank you Josh!) Several people said it was better than their real Christmas. When asked why, they would say “I was alone on my real Christmas.”
This takes me to this year’s gathering. Bread of Life stopped going to the gathering a few years for a number of reasons, and I stopped going as well. You might have seen my post last year in which I mourned it being over. Well, this year I was singing with some friends outside on Easter morning, and I realized that I just had to go back. And I am so glad I did.
Why did I go back? Not just because I wanted to do “ministry” or have some fun times singing or get myself a hippie husband. I wanted to go back because I am a part of the Rainbow Family. Something morphed over the years, and instead of Rainbows being the target of my “ministry,” some kind of project that I had to conquer, they became my brothers and sisters. I went from being an outsider who was trying to “save” people with a very judgemental attitude, to realizing that I was a part of this beautiful family. I have a deep understanding of a Creator who deeply loves them, who gave his life for them, something I want to help them understand more than anything in the world. But I have the attitude of doing that as an insider, rather than as a missionary. They are no longer projects to me, they are my people.
I was the second act of the year at the outdoor “G-Funk” theatre. I led everyone in my song Hush Child, which I wrote while working with the Rainbow Family to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.
One of the most beautiful encounters I had this year was working with my friend who is kind of an incognito hippie missionary that ministers at lots of festivals. He speaks in the most beautiful, non Christiany language to pray with people and show them how loved they are by the Creator. Let’s call him Jordan. We had a blanket set up at trade circle with a sign that said “Spiritual Readings.” A guy named Raven came along and asked what we wanted in exchange for a reading. We told him it was free, and we asked him to open himself to God as we prayed for him. After a time of silence, I gave him the verse “Can a mother forget her baby and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See I have engraved you on the palms of my hands,” which is found in Isaiah 49:15.
I said “I think that you have some major issues with your mom. That she has really hurt you and that the Creator wants to heal that hurt.” He started weeping almost uncontrollably. “My mom is crazy,she’s bipolar.” He said “She tried to kill me when I was younger.” We talked him through God healing that place in him. Then he showed us his hands. In the lines of his hands were crosses, which is very uncommon. God had written the name Raven on his own hands, and then he had put crosses on Raven’s hands. He recognized that.
Jordan then asked Raven if it would be ok for me to stand in the place of his mother. Through tears he said yes. I took his hands, looked him in the eyes and said “will you forgive me for not treating you like a son? For trying to kill you? For not believing in you? ” I was crying, he was crying. “Yes, I forgive you.” “Can you believe that underneath it all, I really do love you? That my illness is stopping you from hearing that, but I really do love you?” “Yes.” Then I gave him a mother’s blessing.
He had said earlier in the conversation”No amount of acid can erase this pain.” So Jordan said to him “Acid can’t erase the pain, but I know someone who can…Jeshua. Religion might have messed it up for you, but underneath he is the answer.”
It was so beautiful.
Raven is not a drug using “sinner” that needs to be judged. Nor is he some kind of salvation project. Nor is he the giver of a story that would inspire people to give me money on my next ministry trip. He is a broken man who has been deeply wounded. He is a beautiful man who needs to know about a Creator Father who loves him. He is someone that can learn from me, someone that I can learn from.
He is my brother.
Every year, I love these people deeper and deeper. I want to learn from them. But I also want to share the joy of the love that I have found: the love of a Father who deeply loves the poorest, the dirtiest, the drunkest, the most strung out. By loving them, I learn how deep my Father’s love is for them, and also for me.
I want to share with them the hope found in the the deepest love story, the love story from which all the other love stories flow. The story a God that would give up everything just so he could bend down and be close to us, dirty and dreadlocked and profane and scared as we are.
Lord, help me know how to display this story every day. By loving unconditionally, with everything in me, just like you do.
When I was a camp counselor, I taught a devotion in which I had the campers look into the night sky. I asked them to search for their very own constellation and draw it on a card. Many of them looked for their initials. Others looked for stars that shaped their favorite animal. Still others looked for hearts to remind them of how much God loved them.
“Did you know, ” I would say to them, “When God created the universe so long ago, he spoke those stars into space and he thought to himself Some day, this is going to be Annie’s constellation. And that’s why I love these particular stars so much. Because in thousands of years, these stars will remind her of how much I love her.”
I loved that devotion because I believed that it was true. That God really did think of us when he painted the stars. That he could not be contained by eternity, and yet he drew the tiny lines on a leaf. In the very same way, he could be so big and yet be deeply concerned about our tiny little lives.
Back then, my eyes were full of the wonder of my Savior’s love for me. I was always looking for it, remembering it. I would do things like write letters from God where he spoke to me directly. I would have many “special places” with God where I would go and pray, like the woods behind my dorms or the railroad tracks by the river, or the cherry tree that I would climb in and sing.
On Valentine’s day, I would visit spots where I used to have quiet times. I would sing songs from that season and build up rocks as a remembrance of what God had done for me. I even wrote God is my beloved under the altar at my college chapel on one of these remembrance walks. I found it was still there years later when I was visiting my old campus.
My belief in God’s goodness was palatable back then. My sense of wonder was a constant companion.
This sense of awe struck me again a few years ago on my birthday. I have an annual tradition of going on a favorite hike and journaling all the things I am thankful for from that year. As I was on my walk, I turned a corner and my jaw dropped open when I saw thousands of wild yellow orchids, covering a huge meadow that was totally barren two days earlier when I was hiking the same trail.
I felt like God said “Here you are beautiful girl. You love flowers and so I am giving you thousands of them for your birthday.” It was so special.
It has been several years since that experience, and I had another birthday on Tuesday.
I woke up thinking about the experience with the orchids. Instead of thinking that was so kind of God or I wonder what surprise he has for me today, I thought I can’t believe how naive I was back then.
I caught myself thinking this, and it stunned and saddened me. I stopped to examine my heart for a little while.
Why had I become so cynical the last few years? When did I stop believing that God gives me thousands of flowers on my birthday? That he remembered my name when he created the stars?
What had happened to my sense of wonder?
I realized that I have silently doubted the goodness and even existence of God in this last season of my life, slowly, thought by thought. Like water eroding a rock very gently day by day until there was a new pathway where the water went in a completely different direction. I had given in to my doubts minute by minute, and I was now winding down a river much darker than the clear, more innocent water that I used to know.
I have thoughts like, “I am struggling with a bout of depression again. Is God really there?” And it was like a little bit of water corroding the rock beneath it. “There is sex trafficking in the world. It is a issue that I have been fighting for. Could God really be good when this is happening?” A little bit of water eroding the rock. “God has not given me a child yet. Why would he do that to me if he really loved me?” A little bit more water changing the pathway before it. Until my whole journey had changed.
I thought about all of this on the morning of my birthday. I realized that I have all but lost my sense of wonder when it comes to looking at the Father’s love. And I wanted it back.
Later that day, I went on my annual birthday hike, journal in hand. My roommate had told me about a new hiking trail, so I set out to find it.
It was stunning. Once I turned the corner from the busy highway I walked down, it was a different world. If I hadn’t known any better I would have thought that I was backpacking in the middle of a pristine mountain range instead of being a few miles away from Boulder. Huge rivers twisted their way through lush green fields, overlooked by my precious rocky mountains and flatiron rocks. There was a carpet of tiny white flowers everywhere.
But the biggest surprise, my birthday surprise, came when I looked into the sky. There was some sort of white fuzzy plant that was germinating and tiny clumps of it blew through the air, everywhere, all around me.
It looked exactly like snow.
When I looked up, it appeared as if I was standing in the middle of winter with big snowflakes falling in my hair. If I looked down, it was a beautiful spring day.
It was as if I was in two seasons at once: winter and spring.
I realized that God was giving me a new gift this year: the ability to live in two seasons at the same time. One that was sometimes cold and often difficult, the other beautiful and full of wonder. Neither one more important than the other.
When I was in my springtime years ago, I used to look away from dark issues. Personal issues like my struggle with loneliness and barrenness. World issues like war and sex trafficking. I didn’t want it to mar my vision of a loving God.
This last season had been winter. It had been hard, and it wasn’t always healthy. But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t progressing. In my winter season, I have looked suffering square in the face, and it has been hard.
Often, I have walked these cold paths alone, brushing past God when he tries to walk with me because I feel angry or ambivalent towards him. Sometimes I didn’t believe that God could exist in winters like these.
But now, I believe I am approaching a new route, where the two parts of my journey intersect into one road. Where it is winter and spring at the same time. A place where God can take my hand because I have opened it to him, walking with me through the pain and the questioning. Not so he can answer my questions, because some of those questions will never be answered. No, I want to walk with him simply so we can be with each other.
Together we can embrace the mystery of a world that is suffering and a God who loves unfathomably at the very same time. Where we can walk together as I face my own darkness and pain. Where we advocate together issues that are scary and horrible, things that break God’s heart every day.
Maybe I can say “there is suffering in the world, including my own suffering” with the beautiful, powerful, unconditionally loving God walking with me. A paradox that I may not understand until I reach heaven. We will walk through fields that are full of flowers and skies that are full of snow, and all of it will be beautiful.
And in this season, maybe God will teach me that if I’m not too scared to look past the snow into the scary, stormy skies, I will see my constellation, the constellation he made for me when he painted the stars.
Stars that cast light I would never see if not for the darkness that surrounds them.
I wrote this after talking to a dear friend of mine with three kids who has been married for a long time. It has been a hard road for her. She started crying and said “Kate, you don’t know how much I envy your life.” At first I bristled. I envy other people’s lives so much, how could anyone envy mine? But it got me thinking. I do have a beautiful life, and I do have things in my life I could never have without a family, no matter how much I don’t want to admit it. I have been more positive about my life ever since then, and am trying to walk on a journey towards “home.” Hope you enjoy it.
For many years, I spent my life on the shore, watching, waiting.
Like a million stories told through a hundred generations, I was searching the horizon, looking for someone to come home to me. A companion to walk with. A witness to my life.
I imagined that we would meet on the shore in a glorious homecoming. He would run towards me and spin me around, making me dizzy with his love. That would be the moment that all the minutes before had led up to, the moment that all the minutes after would never forget.
We would walk hand in hand down the road marked out for us. And when we reached our destination, we would build up our love story around us like a warm shelter.
But years passed. No matter how hard I looked, no matter how fervently I prayed, I did not see that ship coming in. I clenched my cold hands and continued watching on the waterfront, dreaming of the beautiful phantom life that was not mine.
I stood shivering on the shore for a long time. I began to realize that the ship, the parallel existence that I had hoped to start living long ago, was a ghost ship. It was perfect, but only because it was elusive. It was beautiful, but only because it was not really there.
I am cold now. I am ready to go somewhere that will hide me from the storm. And so I have a choice-to stay here and watch or to step away from the waiting. Perhaps for a little while, perhaps for the rest of my life. I have a choice turn my head from the sea and take a slow walk towards a home that I can build for myself right now, today. A decision that will be a beginning and an ending all at once.
The road will be unspeakably beautiful and deeply painful, just like the journey I would have walked in my parallel life. It will be full of love and full of loneliness, just as it would have been on the sister ship that I never got to ride.
In the end, the path I walk on might not lead me to a home with the arms of a husband or the laughter of children, a reality that may always be difficult for me.
But I can still put flowers in a vase so I can remember small, beautiful things. I can still bake bread and hear laughter around the table. I can still build a fire and press my face against the window pane, welcoming the lonely traveler home.
I can wait for that ghost ship forever, or I can go home and build something beautiful. It may never be easy. The longing may never go away. But perhaps God will teach me how to long and let go at the very same time.
In the end, I don’t want to live in a parallel life that will disappear if I try to touch it. I want to walk out the tangible story that God has set before me today.
Even if I never find the love story that I anticipated, I might find a love story that I didn’t expect. A different kind of love story.
A story that leads me home.
What dreams have you had that never came true?
How did you respond to those unmet desire?
Do you think you can long and let go at the same time?
A little black girl with butterfly barrettes
Ran up to me as I stepped off the bus.
The kind of laugh that makes you
Look up for a moment
And remember there is sky there.
With hope falling on every syllable, she said
She reached her hand towards me
Holding the string of a
And the moment was heavy
With a hundred questions
I used to laugh like that
But somewhere along the way I realized
That beauty came with pain
And so I chose a life that was somewhere between
Pain and beautiful
A life that was very comfortable
But very alone
But also without reverie.
This gift that she offered me
This gift of the yellow balloon
It wasn’t in-between.
It was beautiful
I had forgotten what beautiful looked like
So I hesitated
And this little girl, didn’t she understand
How different the worlds we came from?
Her life filled with
Food stamps and trailer parks
Mine filled with
Screens and fences
Her people trying to forgive
Their hundreds of years in chains
My people trying to understand
How we could ever do anything so cruel
Shouldn’t I be the one giving something to her?
And so I hesitated
And that little girl, if she could see
What was inside of me
She wouldn’t want to give me that yellow balloon
Despite my neat house and my
Church every Sunday
I am very scared
Like a little girl with butterfly barrettes.
I live with thoughts dark and sad
And I wonder if anyone would love me
If they really knew me.
I didn’t deserve this gift.
And so I hesitated.
Finally, I bent down with tears in my eyes and said
“Honey, I don’t think I should take this ballon away from you. “
“But I want to give it to you” she said back.
“I have an idea….Let’s hold on to it together, and then we can let it go!”
I put my hand over hers.
We opened our hands
And our shackles fell
In that moment I felt it again:
Grief and reverie
But this time I wanted them both.
I wanted all of it.
Together we watched the balloon floating in the distance
Sunlight falling on us like baptism
Like reckless mercy
Like relentless love
I looked down at the girl,
Our hands still intertwined
And I realized that
Despite all of our differences
In that moment we were just two wayward children
That had seen a glimpse of home.
You don’t often think that a visit to Mcdonald’s will change your life. Your cholesterol levels? Often. Your stomach digestion experiences, a given. But your life? This is rare.
I never used to go to Mcdonald’s, but every other Tuesday, right after work, I go to a contemplative spiritual formation group in Denver. I don’t have time to eat dinner until after the 9pm meeting, so I am usually starving afterwards. I inevitably end up at this Mcdonald’s and practice the brilliant trick my homeless friend taught me: order a double cheeseburger, hold the ketchup and mustard, add Big Mac sauce and lettuce, and voila! A semi Big Mac that is $1 instead of $4. I like to call it the swindle burger.
This particular Mcdonald’s is newly renovated, with a coffee bar and trendy lampshades. It reminds me a little bit of a mutt wearing a tutu.
Despite this Mcdonald’s shiny facade, the people that frequent here are anything but fancy. There are many homeless people that eat their swindle burgers here just like me. Every time I have been at this particular Mcdonald’s I have gotten into a conversation with a homeless person while I’m eating.
But the conversation this week was more than just interesting. It made me examine my life.
It was with Feather, a high cheekboned Native American man with a beautiful smile, even if it was a smile that was lacking a few teeth.
We talked about his life and his experience being a native American. The conversation took a more emotional turn when he told me that he had 7 kids from 4 different women.
“The youngest, he’s 16….how I love him. My sweet David. We just love each other so much. When we spend time together we laugh and laugh. But I’m an alcoholic, you see. I am so addicted. I’ve been on and off the streets for years because of it. And I hate it. I just hate it.
That’s why I’m going to rehab tonight. For my son. Because I love my son. Because I promised him I would.”
Now I have worked with a lot of homeless people and I love them. I really love them. But I know from past experience that a homeless person you are talking to will often say they are going to rehab or getting religion just because they don’t want you to see how broken they are. It makes sense that they have this defense mechanism in place because pretty much everyone judges them.
So I didn’t believe that he was going to rehab that night. But I still encouraged him.
“Feather, I would really admire you if you did that. You are a strong, strong person. Your son deserves to see you better, and you deserve to be better.”
I was reminded of a story in the Bible. The parable of the Wheat and the Tares.
The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from? ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’’No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’
If you asked most Christians about this parable, they would probably say that it is about the afterlife, God separating the good from the bad people. Maybe that’s true. I don’t know.
But maybe there is another lesson in this parable. Maybe it is about each of us, our good sides and bad sides. Our very own wheat and tares. And maybe one day God will burn away all of the things that are not of him and keep all of the things that are beautiful in us. Maybe that’s even the way he chooses to see us now; beautiful.
I wrote a poem about this parable when I was working full time with homeless people in San Francisco. (The names have been changed to protect my friends.)
The Wheat and the Tares
The beautiful and the ugly.
The holy and the evil.
The eternal and the temporal.
All of us
Every one of us
We are weak and strong at the same time.
The way she loves so deeply and the way she hates so deeply. Her fierce humor and fierce capacity to live. Anger and passion and goodness and pain mixed together in a complicated beautiful bundle.
Like Big Jim
The way he smiles and laughs and brings child like faith and light to Paige street and to my heart
But who covers his ears and yells because he is so, so scared.
Like Pretty John
Who is so gentle and so kind that when I got to know him I was shocked that he is one of the most violent gangs in Golden Gate Park. The way he makes me laugh until my belly hurts when we are playing cards.
But he won’t love himself enough to stop drinking. He thinks he is so engrafted in his life on the streets that the name of his gang is tattooed across his forehead.
The way he turned himself in to the police because he thought that it was the right thing to do. He inspires me.
But he alway feels like people hate him, like they are out to get him, like no one would ever love him.
Her sweet voice and her warmth and her smile that lights up everything around her.
But she feel like she needs a man to tell her she is beautiful. She doesn’t know she is beautiful without that. Yet he never tells her and she is always empty.
Who tells me he’s my big brother and makes me laugh by saying “Elvis just walked into the room!”
But he also says that the only mistake God ever made was making him.
Who has so much wisdom in his small voice with his lisp that it brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it.
But he knows that his dream of going back to Detroit and having a house and a wife and children….he knows it will probably never happen. He has so much love in his heart and no one to give it to.
Who is so tenderhearted that he cries every time I sing. His six foot frame immerses me in love every time he hugs me. But he has so much rage that he can’t stay out of jail.
The way I bring beauty and passion and new perspectives of God to everyone around me
But I have such deep sadness and I hold on to the past and I long for a different life and I feel like I am not lovable. Even when God has told me again and again that I am.
The wheat and the tares. The beautiful and the ugly. The holy and the evil.
The enemy comes and plants the tares among the wheat.
And for now, they grow together.
But one day
One glorious day,
Jesus will come.
He will tie up the tares in bundles
And burn them
Until the smoke blows away
And all that is left
Is a beautiful, golden
Field of wheat.
As I was talking to Feather and thinking about the wheat and the tares, I suddenly saw an ambulance in the window.
“There they are, Kate! They’re here to pick me up!” Feather said. “I’m scared. Do you think I can do this? Do you think I can start over again?”
He hadn’t been lying. He really was going to rehab. In that moment, I did not see an alcoholic. I did not see a homeless man. I saw a man who was so brave that he would face his biggest fear so that he could be a better father to his son.
I looked him in the eyes. “Yes Feather. Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind that this night will change your life forever.”
“Ok, I believe you! Pray for me!” he said as he walked out the door and into the ambulance.
Feather, like all of us, are weak and strong at the same time.
But God is so good that he sees the strong in us every time. God is so good that he burns away the dross and looks in wonder at a beautiful, golden field of wheat.
(The picture above is not actually Feather and Feather is not his real name.)
I know that in my post Signs Signs Everywhere the Signs, I talked about how it can be unwise to look for signs when it comes to marriage.
Furthermore, I know that in my post called What Single People Wish Married People Knew, I talked about how frustrated I get when people tell me I just need to let go to find my partner.
So it is pretty ironic that today, I’m going to talk about how I got a sign that told me to let go.
Rewind to about thirteen years ago. I was in India for two months. I went to learn about starting an orphanage, which I was really interested in at the time. I spent a lot of time drawing pictures and singing and dancing with children who didn’t speak my language. But who needs language when you have love?
On that trip I also got to preach to a jail in which everyone in the whole place, including the Muslim guards, became Christians. They started a bible study that to the best of my knoweldge is still going.
I also happened to go to India because I was running away from a relationship. I was so unsure if I wanted to marry this guy that I thought it would be a good idea to go halfway around the world to figure it out. Maybe the arranged marriages I found in India were a sign that I should stop dating so I wouldn’t have to decide on anything and just get a mail order husband from Brazil or something. Or maybe it would be easier than that and God would just give me a dream.
Lo and behold I did have a dream. It is amazing that I had a dream because it was amazing that I was sleeping. And it was amazing that I was sleeping because I had screaming cockroaches all around my bed. And yes, when I say screaming cockroaches I do mean cockroaches that scream. Screaming cockroaches are India’s national symbol. Maybe.
Anyway back to the dream. It’s been a long time since I had that dream, but I’m pretty sure that I was told to look up a verse in the bible. So I woke up and looked it up.
This is what it said: “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.“(Galatians 4:22-23)
The story that this verse was referring to was that of Abraham in Genesis 17. God had told Abraham at a very late age that his descendants would outnumber the stars of the sky. But year after year after freaking year (can you tell I relate to this story?) the promised son did not come.
Finally, Abraham felt like he couldn’t wait any longer. He slept with his wife’s servant Hagar, and had a son named Ishmael. Abraham tried to force the promise to come before it was time, and the result was the son of a slave. God made it clear that Ishmael was not the son he had promised. Finally Isaac came, the promised son, the son of a free woman.
It is also important to note for the sake of the rest of this story that when Sarah, Abraham’s wife, finally became pregnant with Isaac, she laughed.
I knew when I read this verse what God was telling me. Kate, you long for family, and I promise you family. But I do not want you to try to control things to receive my promise. I want to give you the promise in my timing. You need to trust me.
So I got home, went out to dinner with my boyfriend the first night, and said something to this effect:
“So I had a dream and in that dream God told me I shouldn’t have an Ishmael which is the son of the flesh and maybe you are Ishmael which means you are the son of the flesh and also the son of a slave and I am being figurative here but maybe spiritually or actually in real life I am a son of a slave or we are both sons of slaves and even though you are flesh of my flesh maybe it would better if we were flesh of someone else’s fleshes or…screw it maybe we should break up.”
Needless to say he broke up with me not long after that.
Fast forward about eight years. I was again praying about whether I should marry my current boyfriend. I decided to go to a monastery to pray.
The first night, I met a woman named Amara who was a housekeeper at the monastery. I really love names and I thought her name was beautiful so I made a mental note to look up the meaning of her name.
The next day, it was cold and foggy so I couldn’t see the beautiful mountains and ocean from my little hermit hut in Big Sur, Caifornia. I was sick. I thought it would be a waste of a day. Instead, I sat on my bed for at least twelve hours straight. God downloaded things to me the entire time.
I felt like he told me to read the story of Abraham, every verse of his story, and every verse referenced to go along with the story. I saw how Abraham longed for a child, for family, just like I did, and how God promised him over and over and over again about his family and his descendants. Promise, covenant, promise were written everywhere.
Sometime in the afternoon I closed my eyes for a while and had a waking dream. I went into this beautiful garden, something that looked like it was out of Alice in Wonderland, and God said “this is your family.” I walked over to three big flowers. A purple iris opened and there was a perfect, beautiful black baby girl sleeping.
I opened my eyes and decided to look up in a baby name book what Iris meant. It means Rainbow. The promise! What a beautiful confirmation of God’s faithfulness. I looked through the nicknames that came from Iris and saw the name Risa. I thought to myself “If I ever have a daughter, I will name her Risa to remember God’s promise.”
Just then, I remembered Amara and decided to look up her name. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that Amara means Promised by God. Just like for Abraham, I promise, I promise, I promise kept being repeated to me. I went away from that retreat feeling hopeful and loved.
Fast forward another three years. More than ever I felt like Abraham. Year after year after freaking year and there I was, still alone. I had had a few possible relationships where I took things into my own hands, tried to force the promise, tried to coerce God into giving me something that I wanted, doubting God’s promises, doubting God’s goodness, I was (and still am) in a season of mourning and struggling to trust God.
This takes me to the last few weeks. I was in Mexico teaching at YWAM base. Somehow people started talking about names. I said “if I ever have a daughter, I will name her Risa.” A friend of mine said “Oh yes that is such a beautiful name. Laughter.” “What do you mean laughter?” “Risa means laughter in Spanish. Didn’t you know that?” I looked it up, and sure enough the Spanish word comes from the Latin word Risa and means laughter.
Do you know why this is amazing? Like really amazing? Like God actually looks on tiny me and cares about my dreams and cares about the details and cares about what my heart yearns for –amazing?
Because Sarah laughed when she was told she would finally have a baby at such an old age. Because she wanted to remember that laughter forever by using It as her baby’s namesake.
Isaac also means laughter.
I want to be careful, because I don’t want my belief in God’s existence or goodness to rest upon an event like my getting married or having a child. That is not fair to God, and it is not fair to anyone I might end up marrying. It is too much pressure. I don’t want to lose my faith over anything, including being alone. I mean, even Abraham was asked to sacrifice his promise after it was given to him, to show his allegiance to God over the promise.
But still, this whole story feels like such a gift. It honestly gives me hope that I really might have a family some day.
Even more importantly, at least for this season, I believe that this sign needs to be a reminder to me. That I have a choice in front of me to have the child of a slave, or the child of a free woman. I have situations in my life, especially when it comes to romance, where I can choose to control, to obsess, to lose hope, to doubt God. Or I can choose to trust, to live freely, to let go.
It seems that God is telling me to be free when it comes to my desire for a family. To know that he is good and he will work things out in his own time.
I want to laugh just like Sarah laughed. It will be the laughter of letting go. It will be the laughter of joy despite my loneliness. It will be the laughter of a deep trust in the promise of God. The laughter of one who will not have a child of a slave, but the child of a free woman.
Today, we have a choice in front of us, just like Abraham had. The choice of slavery or the choice of freedom. The choice to bow down to our loneliness and our fear and our hopelessness or to dance, to sing, to laugh.
Maybe we can collectively laugh as a way of saying “I choose freedom today.” And that laughter will ring out and break some of the shackles off of our weary souls.