28 February 2014

God, grant me the serenity to be still

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
~I John 4:7, 16, 18a & 21

That pretty much sums it all up for me. My whole theology in a few neat sentences. These verses are my touch-stone. They are the metric by which I measure the rightness or goodness of anything. God is the genesis of Love and Love is the genesis of all good in the world. God loves love. Whenever someone attempts to make a Christian case for exclusion or condemnation of same-sex oriented people, I come back to my touch-stone: my complete faith that Love always wins.

There are some things happening in the Mennonite church today around the issue of same-sex sexuality. This conversation has been rumbling for a few decades, but it seems to have finally reached a critical mass. And now most everyone in the church, on all sides of this issue, are jumping into the conversation with their opinions and ideas. I think dialogue and everyone coming together around the table are great things and I support them. I obviously have my own opinions and ideas and I have been encouraged by friends and family to join them at the table; but, this is not my fight.

I'm sure you want to lecture me on how civil rights and basic justice are everybody's fight. And you'd be right to say those things. But I am not saying this out of laziness or defeatism - I am saying this out of serenity and faith.

Back in 2011, I went to the Mennonite Convention in Pittsburgh. One night, I attended a "listening circle" around the issue of same-sex sexuality. I went in the spirit of hope and curiosity; I had no idea what I was in for. I honestly don't remember much of what was said. It was so wounding and painful that I think I've blocked it out. I do remember that, when I'd had enough, I turned to my mother and told her, "Every negative thing they say about 'gay people,' it feels like they are saying it directly to and about me." With that, I walked out of the room. God, in her divine wisdom and providence, had put the room with the "listening circle" directly next to the prayer room. Without thinking, I walked into the space, found a private curtained-off area and dropped to my knees. Through tears I prayed for serenity over and over again. Weeping out all of the pain I'd just endured.

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference.

I left that prayer room serene. I have remained serene regarding this issue since that day. I have faith in my God and in my church and I believe that love will win. But, I have accepted that this is something I can't change.

I am reminded of a verse from the Old Testament that I learned in high school: "The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still." I'm not saying everyone should be still, but I think this fight is for people with thicker skin than mine. I support and encourage those who are pushing back against the oppression of the established order. This is important, necessary work that needs people who are fierce and passionate. But it is also okay to be wounded and weary.

21 February 2014

Pray Constantly

I remember wondering things like "Do I pray enough?" when I was younger. I never knew what "enough" was, but I always knew I wasn't there yet. And scripture telling me to pray constantly didn't help assuage my guilt. I had these very specific ideas about how and when to pray. In the morning you do a devotional, before you leave you ask for travelling mercies, in prayer time at school you pray for sick relatives, before dinner you bless the meal and before bed you ask for forgiveness. But even if I prayed all of those prayers, I still felt like I wasn't praying enough. Not knowing what more to do, I just decided that prayer wasn't for me. I became anxious praying out loud, never feeling like my prayers were good enough. I got weirdly good and just saying no when asked to pray publicly.

I don't know when it changed. I imagine it started when I interned at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church (OCMC) back in 2006 and saw a church that was wholly invested in prayer. We prayed before and after meetings. We did prayer walks in the neighborhood. When one family was moving, we walked through the empty rooms of their new house and prayed. We prayed for impossible things and mundane things. We prayed for everything. They quickly discovered my aversion to praying out loud and were completely respectful of it, allowing me to pray with them silently. This created a space for me where prayer was easy. It happened all the time and increasingly came naturally to me.

I still struggled with worries about enough, but I slowly came back to prayer. It started with simple conversations with God as I walked places. This is still my favorite and most precious way to pray. To just open your mind to the divine and pour out everything weighing you down is beautiful and sacred. I began to love to pray privately and silently, but still felt so very anxious about praying out loud.

When I first moved to Philly 4 years ago, I attended a women's bible study through OCMC. At the end of the study, we would go around the circle and share all of our prayer requests with the whole group and then we would break into pairs and pray for each other. The leader of the study knew my discomfort with praying out loud, so would encourage me to pray silently for my partner. This, again, created a wonderfully safe space for me. And it was here, as I was so blessed by the words these women prayed over me, that I desired to pray aloud for the first time in years. I still stammered and felt awkward a lot, but I pushed through it. I soon found that just as I was blessed by words prayed over me, so too did my words bless the women I prayed for. I learned that prayer isn't just about me and God, it's about the people I'm praying for and over, too. I learned that hearing someone else articulate your cries to God is powerful.

These days, I pray a lot. Living in a city and relying only on public transportation and my own two feet means I see a lot of people everyday and I pray for many of them. When the roads are bad, I pray safety over cars that go past me. When I see someone rushing somewhere, I pray they make it on time. When I hear about a crime, I pray peace for the victim, victim's family, perpetrator, perpetrator's family and witnesses. When I hear a siren, I pray.

I still struggle with praying out loud, though. In small groups of people who care deeply about me, it is still something I have to muster. One of the things that has made me the most anxious is being asked to pray over a meal. One of my friends who went to Catholic school suggested I try liturgical prayer in a situation like that. Specifically, she suggested:

Bless us, Oh Lord,
and these thy gifts,
which we are about to receive,
from thy bounty,
through Christ,
Our Lord.

This sparked me looking for more liturgical prayer, as that felt so much more comfortable. Below are the three I use the most often.

The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make His face to shine upon you
And give you Peace

When I see someone who looks worried or upset or anxious or just bummed, I say this prayer for them.

Oh Lord, Oh Lord, Oh Lord

This one I reserve for when there are no words. Like when I see a pregnant teenager or an ignored toddler or when I read about the terrible violence in Syria, Ukraine and all over the world.

Lord Jesus Christ
Have mercy on me

This one is for me. Whenever I just can't handle whatever's going on in my life, I ask for mercy.

The most important thing this prayer journey has taught me is that God meets us where we are. God saw my anxiety and brought me to places of public prayer that were safe. God met me in my silence and nurtured my voice. God never condemned me for not praying enough. God rejoiced in what I was comfortable with. Prayer is important, but it's also for us. It's not for piety. It's not for enough. It's for our own growth and connection with God and other believers.

Now when I think about praying constantly, I think about constantly remaining connected to the divine and to the people around me. It is no longer a source of guilt, but a source of hope about the possibility of a continuous spiritual bond.

This beautiful prayer flag was made for me by my friend and fellow blogger, Rachel Halder. You can find her writing at www.ourstoriesuntold.com

14 February 2014

Love and Chocolate

I call a lot of holidays my favorite holiday, but when I say it about Valentine's Day, I mean it.

One of my mom's love languages is gift-giving, so holidays were always a big deal in my house. I remember waking up on Valentine's morning to find a basket full of chocolate and presents on the dining room table with a card telling me how much my parents loved me. Because of this, I have always associated Valentines' Day with celebrating love and chocolate.

When I was 13, my best friend April got broken up with just before Valentine's Day and was very upset about it. Not wanting her to have a lousy day, I asked her to be my Valentine. I still remember my dad taking me to the store to pick out a box of chocolates for her; fully supportive of his silly, joyous daughter. She came over to my house and we watched Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge while eating pizza and ice cream. We had a blast and I had unwittingly started a lasting tradition. Almost every year since then, I've picked one of my (usually single) girl friends and asked her to be my Valentine. I buy her chocolates and we go on a date. Tonight, I have two Valentines and I'm making them heart-shaped pizza to share over some Netflix rom-coms.

I always get so frustrated when people are negative about Valentine's Day. Calling it "Singles Awareness Day" and other such crap. I believe that if you feel excluded on Valentine's Day because you don't have a significant other, it's because you decided to feel that way. Restaurants won't turn you away if you show up with a friend. CVS will sell you all the boxes of chocolate you want without first verifying that they're for your partner. Why pigeon-hole Valentine's Day, a day to celebrate love, into only being about romantic love? This is the first year of my life that I went on a romantic Valentine's date and I wouldn't even go with him on Valentine's day (we went last night) because spending February 14th with my girl friends is so much more important to me. If you stop thinking about Valentine's Day as being about romance and start thinking about it as being about LOVE, you open up so many possibilities for joy and celebration.

Pretty much every single day is what you make it. As often as I can, I choose joy.

These are some of the Valentine's I made this year.

07 February 2014

Won't you be my Neighbor?

I recently read this article by a woman from Oakland on how not to be a gentrifier. As a white woman who somewhat recently moved into an area that is considered to be "gentrifying," I try to be acutely aware of my impact on my community. This article was exactly what I needed. I absolutely love my neighborhood and its diversity, so a practical guide on being a positive force in your community for everyone gave me so much to think about and put in action.

The one piece of advice this article gives that I find the most powerful is her recommendation to view everyone you see in your neighborhood as your neighbor. This seems obvious, but it's so easy to look at people who are different from you or even distasteful to you as not really being a part of your community. The homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks, the women selling their bodies, the young men who look like someone who might rob you: They are all your neighbor.

That word is so heavy. Neighbor. It shows up all over the Bible. Old Testament laws command us to show our neighbors dignity and justice. When Jesus is asked "What's the most important commandment?" he answers that we must love God with everything we've got and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And when asked "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan, teaching us that anyone could be our neighbor, we just have to accept them as part of our community and our lives.

Since I walk about half an hour to work every day, I see a lot of people. And Philadelphia is not New York - you are not just an anonymous and ignored person, invisibly walking down the sidewalk. In Philadelphia (and especially West Philly) you see and are seen by most everyone who walks past. Over the last few weeks, I have been intentionally thinking to myself as I approach each new person "This is my neighbor." Often, this has no effect on the way I treat that person; but sometimes when I see someone who is different from me or even distasteful to me, I can feel something in my attitude change when I think "This is my neighbor."

That teenager who just dropped their trash on the ground is my neighbor.
That man who leered at me is my neighbor.
That mother who just screamed at her child is my neighbor.
That homeless person who just asked me for money is my neighbor.
That angry-looking person who didn't return my smile is my neighbor.

Jesus didn't tell us what set number of people we are to consider our neighbors, but showed us that anyone we encounter can be our neighbor if we open ourselves up to the responsibility of claiming them as part of our community. If I have a right to be a part of this community, so do they. If I am deserving of grace, so are they.

Jesus didn't just ask us to love our neighbor, he asked us to love our neighbor as ourselves. That change in attitude can best be summed up as me asking myself "How would I want to be treated if I were them?" Looking at my daily interactions through this lens has helped me tap into a well of compassion and empathy I didn't know I had. The practice of putting yourself in someone else's shoes is humbling.

For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
~Galatians 5:14