Love and Loneliness

This week I took an all-too-rare opportunity to slow to a halt and do nothing but be in my daughter’s space without distraction. In a moment of clarity I noticed her feeling lonely and knew my own culpability in that. It got me thinking.

Kids need connection. They need to be noticed, engaged, worshiped. While I won’t say they need this more than basic provisions, I will say they probably need it just as much–certainly more than they need the world given them on a silver platter.

Affluence can conjure a whole set of problems for us as parents. We can find ourselves awash in a sea of opportunities, layering guilt on ourselves even as we layer gifts on our children. I can provide her new toys and dance classes at the same time I’m chiding myself for being less generous with the paints than I meant to be.

My friend worried to me the other day about her unwillingness to let her kids get muddy. In the next breath she reported that her Lyme disease has flared up from stress this winter. Meanwhile I sat on her sofa and admired her as she connected with her kids. The last thing she needs right now is another load of laundry, and those kids are getting so much love that they’re going to be OK without the mud.

There is no substitute for love–no way around the essential gift of another person’s affection and attention. Our loving presence as parents is so much more important for our kids than mud or paints or even building good habits.

My sweet daughter has a sweet little five year old soul and body that needs a mommy to watch while it rides a bike in circles as fast as its legs can go. She needs me to watch and keep watching, not just so she’ll feel noticed. So she’ll be noticed. So that she is actually being loved. She is made for this.

And as her mom, I am made to be the person who loves her. It’s my job to make it true that she is loved. I’m fortunate that our family is whole and safe. We don’t struggle for basic survival, so there’s no reason that my children should have to experience loneliness. No reason, that is, outside of my own sin-broken nature.

At the very end of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is dying, blissful to be finally in the presence of Marius & his beloved Cosette. His last words to them are “Love each other dearly always. There is scarcely anything else in the world but that: to love one another.”

The Apostle Paul says as much to the Corinthians: “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

I will confess I am not good at real love. My heart is too much given to itself, bent in on itself. I need Christ to remake me, resurrect me, teach me, show me. I need to be formed in his image. I need love to be given to me as a divine gift.

John’s assertion “God is love” is bafflingly simple. Love is the whole point because it is the essence of the tri-unity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: the Community of Self-Giving; the Community of Mutual Delight. And as if that weren’t enough, love is the very project of Creation: More love!

The opposite of love, then? Self-absorption, self-interest, self-protection. Satan invites us to be like him in the hideous, agonizing, lonely comfort of ultimate lovelessness. That lovelessness is not just a failure to see the world outside yourself for all its beauty. It’s a failure to enjoy that world. A failure to be present in it. A failure to give yourself to it in self-forgetful worship. It’s isolation.

What do I become when I fail to see my daughter’s beauty and be present with her in love? I am choosing loneliness for myself. What becomes of her in the process? I am choosing loneliness for her, too. To be given someone to love is a sacred trust and a deep mystery. It is no small thing.

Could we say love and loneliness are opposites? Loneliness is such a painful experience because it is the opposite of our design in God’s image. We are made for love, and the absence of love is fatal. It dead-ends in misery. At its worst it becomes the rage, hatred, contempt, frustration of a young man who murders seventeen innocent people at a high school on Valentine’s Day.

My heart aches when I consider the epidemic proportions of acute loneliness in our society. I wonder why it’s so common until I look back into myself again and recognize the difficulty; the impossibility, really. Real love consumes the lover. It is not natural to expend yourself. It is not convenient or easy. It is costly.

There is a counterfeit love. But it is costly too. Counterfeit love has an agenda. It is self-oriented. It maximizes productivity, opportunity, and efficiency instead of connection and presence. It does not secure its object against loneliness.

I cannot love my daughter without investment and sacrifice. I cannot love her and spin all my plates in the same moment. I certainly can’t love her if I approach her as another plate to spin, because then I’m falling short of actually acknowledging her inherent worth as a creature.

I have a tendency toward this knock-off version of love. I turn my daughter into just another plate I’m spinning. Since I’m good at spinning plates, it’s easy to think she has all that she needs because she passes the hours of her days pleasantly and her life is full of good things. I often find myself looking at her as one of my Important Things To Invest In. Seeing her only as an aspect of my own life, I begin to prioritize efficiency. It’s easy to run out of energy and begin to resent the costliness of loving her.

My knock-off version of love is hard to sustain. Like any counterfeit, its source is different from the real thing. Not being divine, it has to be manufactured by my own energy, and this can be exhausting. Not being real, it leaves my daughter lonely.

Instead, if I look at my daughter as a creature made of love and entrusted to me in love, for love, investing in her isn’t exhausting. Yes, it is costly. Love lays aside itself for the good of the beloved. When I get caught up in her beauty–in how good it is to notice her; in how good it is for her to be noticed–then all the while it is costing me it is filling me up, too.

To lay aside self is unnatural. That is why love is so hard and loneliness so common. To lay aside self the heart must be turned toward the other, filled with the love which is the very essence of God. This is what Christ brought the world in his incarnation, bestowing himself on us in love; giving himself in order to be united with us. This is what Christ modeled for his disciples and what he commissioned them for. And this is what John wrote:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us…. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:7-12, 16)

Rutherford in Paris

I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop. This morning’s flavor of music here is not my jam, so I’m glad I brought my headphones. I’m listening to jazz from Paris, dutifully caring for myself. Cliché, but here it is: when Louis Armstrong starts singing about chestnuts in blossom I smile. And I’m sitting beside the window on purpose so I can see the sky. I thought about not getting a latte, but this morning it was a wise choice.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Samuel Rutherford’s ebullient reflections on the loveliness of Christ and browsing essays by Marilynne Robinson, a decidedly Calvinist Christian, a dauntingly brilliant thinker, and a major literary figure of this generation. Rutherford says “Rest, with Christ, will say more than heart can think or tongue can utter,” and if that isn’t the truest thing I don’t know what is.

Lately when I get time to myself I spend it on maximum-strength rest. I need space in my head and my heart. Sometimes I can’t find it, and most of the time I can’t even look for it. I start to feel like I’m drowning. “Rest, with Christ” is oxygen. Yesterday I met my pastor at this same coffee shop and he reminded me of another Calvinist writer, John Newton, who wrote of the cordials Christ bestows on an infant heart hungering for the gospel. That’s why Rutherford went into my bag this morning.

On a morning when I wake up fighting my darkest sorts of feelings, which is it? Is it April in Paris, or is it the Loveliness of Christ? I’ve learned to listen to a lot of secular voices in my adulthood after a thoroughly Calvinist and Puritan childhood. I use these two descriptors rather unfairly, as anyone who lives within them will insist, but I use them in their stereotype-meanings. The poster I made in Sunday school, which my mom probably still has on her bedroom wall, reads “If heaven is our homeland, what else is this earth but our place of exile? –John Calvin.”

After I finish typing this I’ll drive across town to the behavioral health offices at the hospital in an ongoing, uphill attempt to be whole and happy. Christ, unmediated by common grace, simply could not effect this important aspect of wholeness no matter how much I were to devote myself to him. There, I said it: the Bible is not all you need.

But reading Rutherford reminds me that there are less secular methods of self care, and I know them too well to forget or reject them, even if they (like everything else) have potential pitfalls. Couldn’t I care for myself in no other way than “Christ’s cordials”? Rutherford’s sentences make me nod and wince in alternation. A poetic rejection of the world for the sake of love’s expression is good and even true. A life that doesn’t avail itself of April in Paris in this “place of exile” is foolish.

When I criticize myself via internal childhood voices for running to sources besides Christ for wholeness, joy, and rest, what I’m remembering this morning is that all those sources can be oriented within a Gerard Manley Hopkins-esque theology of creation that is as ebullient as are Rutherford’s love letters. Oriented this way, every little thing is valuable to my soul on a morning like this, from orange leather shoes and orange Italian latte cups to Newton, Rutherford, and Marilynne Robinson. It just isn’t either/or.

Ultimately, I can attest to the all-surpassing loveliness of Christ right along with Rutherford, because there is a place my heart goes that nothing else can cure, and Christ can cure it, oh! yes, he can. The best Christian spirituality is learning what it means to belong to him, and this is a school I try to attend, however distractable I may be.

The reality for Rutherford’s original audience was very different from my own. He was writing to friends in deep affliction and even persecution, sometimes writing from prison. Perhaps this is where his modern disciples risk mistranslating him: by reading him out of context. I could have all that I need if I had nothing but Christ, unmediated through Sacrament or sacrament, but that is not my context.

I, for one, will not entertain my own doubts about my faithfulness to Christ when I answer my hunger for creature comforts. This world is his and it is not evil or even unlovely. Everything is beautiful.

 

Holy Audacity: The Church as Christ’s Vice-Regents

Last Saturday morning I jumped in my van and pulled out of my driveway. Lately I’ve been introducing my kids to the tunes-of-choice of my college days, so Steven Curtis Chapman was cued up in our CD player. Track 4 started playing when I got in the car.

It’s all yours, God! Yours, God! Everything is yours!

I was driving toward a local shelter where I was to meet a desperate mother and her four young girls. Through Safe Families for Children, I had agreed to host two of them for a night.

I have my doubts in these moments. I am keenly aware of my privilege and my naivety. I am comparatively young, comparatively wealthy, and comparatively whole. My story reads like a fairy tale compared to the brokenness and devastation survived by many of the parents I meet through Safe Families. I imagine they must find me irritating. Maybe they groan to themselves about yet another Well-Intentioned Well-To-Do who thinks she holds the keys to hope. “As if she has a clue. As if she’ll care enough to go the distance.”

As I drove I wondered out loud: “Who do I think I am, going to get these girls like it’s just a regular Saturday morning? How is this my business? What gives me the right to waltz in offering my remedy? My relief?”

But Steven Curtis Chapman was still singing, and his worship reminded me of another lyric I sing to my kids often: “This is my Father’s world.”

This is my Father’s world.

Suddenly my heart was flooded with confidence. It wouldn’t be putting it too strongly to say I felt a sense of entitlement in that moment. “Holy audacity,” I heard myself say to the empty passenger seat beside me.

So I parked my van just a mile from my own house and walked to meet these struggling strangers. On behalf of my Father in heaven, I had work to do. In some sense, these girls belonged to me. Their mom belonged to me.

I believe that my identity in Christ (and more to the point, my identity as part of the Church, His Body) includes a right to ownership of the whole world. If “everything is Yours,” as Chapman sings, then it must be true that everything is mine, too. God has called His people to love the world on His behalf. He has called us to practice His kingdom.

I’m not saying we can achieve world peace and end world hunger by our efforts. We believe the Kingdom of Heaven is coming. Someday. But today, while we wait with hope, we enact that vision. Today we are Christ’s vice-regents, commissioned for the flourishing of His world.

I stood waiting to meet the little girls I was to take home and Meghan (our local director) began to wonder where the second host family could be. When they still hadn’t shown up fifteen minutes later Meghan called them, only to discover there’d been a mix-up and they were out of town, thinking their hosting was to be the following weekend.

Suddenly we had a situation on our hands, and any minute this mom was going to be walking through her doors with four little girls to hand off.

Steven Curtis Chapman must have gotten into my bloodstream in college, because I buckled all four of those little girls into my van twenty minutes later. I turned the key in the ignition and Track 5 began on cue:

It’s crazy when love gets ahold of you
It’s crazy things that love will make you do

I laughed.

I knew I could do anything for 30 hours, and I knew I would have support.

My husband was in the middle of painting our bathroom so I was on my own for the first few minutes as he finished up. I don’t remember much from that mayhem, but I remember playdoh on the bottom of shoes, mass-production of snacks, and six little people coloring at my dining room table. Suddenly I had seven kids, and my 5yo son was the oldest.

The other thing I remember distinctly is the number of attempts I made to send a single text message. After an hour of sheer pandemonium, I finally got it typed and sent.

And so began the unfolding of a most amazing day. The text was to Brad & Caroline Tubbesing, the directors of Reformed University Fellowship at Indiana University. I knew when I agreed to take all four girls home that I’d need help, and by the time I heard from Caroline I had little more to say than “Send back up.” I asked her to connect me with college students, and I told her I didn’t want their phone numbers, I wanted them on my doorstep ASAP.

Mike finished painting and we started suiting up to walk everyone to the park. At one point the door to the garage got opened and kids started escaping. Mike picked up one tiny person after another and set them back inside until he realized that no sooner would he reach for the next escape artist than the one he’d just retrieved would head back out the door. He called for help. “Babe, we’re hemorrhaging babies over here!”

By the time we’d set out with two kids on bikes, three kids in strollers, and a baby strapped to each of us, I’d started to get text messages from our College Student Fairies.

Elizabeth was the first responder. She was at Kroger and decided to pick up groceries for lunch. Just as we returned from the park she showed up at our door with fried chicken, watermelon, juice, cookies, and even flowers.

Brad himself showed up with his preschool-aged son to lend a hand while I escaped with my own daughter for our long-awaited ballet matinee.

At 4:00 Xinzhu showed up and helped while I started giving everyone baths. At 5:00 Matthias walked in and found me up to my elbows in shampoo. Xinzhu made rice. Matthias read stories. Luke arrived in time to help set the table. We all sat down to lentils and rice at 6:00 with four kids bathed and jammied and only three to go.

The kitchen was in quite a state. After dinner Luke ran Xinzhu home and returned to read stories, color, and generally offset the average household age. Matthias rolled up his sleeves and attacked the kitchen. He didn’t quit till it was sparkling. There wasn’t even rice under the table, and that’s saying something.

Around 9:00 Matthias and Luke left, promising to return in the morning to help caravan us to church since we’d be short on seatbelts. It was 10:00 before I’d finished settling the four sisters into our guest room. The 3yo fell asleep on my arm. The 2yo went from whirling dirvish to snoring angel in mere seconds. The baby wiggled around quietly in her crib. I told kitty stories with the 4yo in the dark and then escaped to attend to the laundry and set out seven church outfits, raiding my stash of outgrown girl clothes.

By this time three of our closest friends had gathered in our living room. This is not unusual in our house and I don’t know what their excuses were for showing up on that particular evening. But at midnight – as Tyler, Nicole, and Fr. Raymond stood in our basement folding a mountain of laundry – it was obvious to me that God hadn’t been finished chasing me down with the love of His people.

Sundays are always an ordeal for my family. My husband works as the organist at a local church. My kids and I worship with a different congregation. Mike leaves by 7:00 a.m. most Sundays and it’s my job to get the family out the door on my own. This particular week was no exception.

I have it down to a science after several years of practice. Still, it isn’t easy. And Sunday mornings are excruciating when I’m sleep-deprived.

After about three good hours of sleep I was standing in my kitchen slicing a very large collection of strawberries when it occurred to me that I was neither anxious nor stressed. If I’d had to make those breakfasts and pack those bags and dress those babies in a filthy kitchen and a house full of chaos I would’ve been a basket case. Instead I was at peace and there was only one explanation: Matthias.

Matthias cleaned my kitchen like it belonged to him. He had the holy audacity to step into my world and enact his vision of the Kingdom. While I was giving myself for the flourishing of these girls and their mom, he gave himself for my flourishing.

And it worked. I flourished.

We say often that it takes a village; but I think it’s more accurate to say it takes a church – an audacious community of vice-regents, working on Christ’s behalf for the flourishing of our Father’s world.

I understand Safe Families more now than I did before last weekend. It’s common for people in Safe Families to tag social media posts with #bethechurch. My understanding of our mission deepened as I found myself surrounded by Jesus’ hands and feet, held up by an audacious church as I ventured into My Father’s World with my own audacity.

Hopefully that single mom felt as much of Jesus on that weekend as I did while slicing strawberries in my clean kitchen. Hopefully she felt the embrace of our Heavenly Father, a whisper of the reality that (as Steven Curtis Chapman sings) He’s the Maker and Keeper, Father and Ruler of everything.

It’s all Yours.

Thoughts on Spring and Standing Still

or Thoughts on Broken Bones and the Power of God

I’m not good at sitting still. I mean that. When I sit down, I get up again. It’s a compulsion, but more than that: It’s a desire and a delight. I like doing All The Things.

Sunday morning my pastor was talking about healed lepers as I was looking at the boot on my foot, aware that all I’ve been told to do is stay off it. Stay off it and it will heal.

This weekend was spring. It’s still February. But it was spring. The birds and I were euphoric for no reason but how the sky looked and how the air felt. There in my front yard, barely an inch tall, a bunch of purple crocuses opened. All I had to do to make that happen was nothing.

I’ve been thinking about life-force a lot these days. Paul writes to Timothy about “the power with which God raised Christ from the dead.” I’ve been thinking about how that power is in the warp and woof of our whole existence. Not only for the whole world: bones and bodies that heal, crocuses that didn’t need any help, and the first warm day of February when even the bare trees and brown grass magically look like Aslan has been here. But doubly for us, children of the resurrection: We belong to God. Spring is inevitable even for souls marked by death with more than annual ashes. Mine, my children’s, my husband’s. Yours.

The conjunction of spring and the X-ray that revealed that my foot has been broken for four months, not strained for two weeks as I’d assumed, was loudly incongruous for me. Every year when spring comes my eager spirit comes out of hibernation. My inability to sit still reaches fever pitch. I do more things, think more thoughts, and feel more feelings in the first weeks of spring than in an entire Minnesota winter.

But not this time. This time I watched my kids at the park from a picnic blanket and I read most of a book and dozed on the couch, because I know that the only way my foot will heal – the only hope I have for my next run – is stillness.

Sit still and let it happen. Sit still and it will heal.

Perhaps second to the story for which this blog is named, my favorite Old Testament story is in 2 Chronicles 20, when Jehoshaphat is king and the people of Judah are facing disaster at the hands of their enemies. The people cry out God: “We are powerless against this! We do not know what to do! But our eyes are on you.” And God’s answer comes, perfect:

Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them….You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.

I thought of this moment in history again yesterday as I sat listening to the story of healed lepers and looking at my broken foot. Sometimes we do not need to fight the battle. Sometimes our work is to stand still and hold our position and see: The world is hard-wired for life and for spring. For resurrection and for the victory of Christ the King.

The Dignity of the Ordinary and Adequate

I’ve had the germ of an essay bouncing around inside my brain for over a year now. The seed was planted as I wandered the streets of the medieval town of Aix-en-Provence last August, noticing the difference in lifestyle of morning markets and corner boulangeries; the humble beauty of a life in which one’s daily business is not much more than one’s daily bread.

This is not that essay. When it finally germinates and sprouts and grows into something it’d better be good, because I am expecting a lot out of it. Ya know, since it’s taken a year and counting.

But for now, the teaser. A marker of sorts, of a day when I especially noticed how I’m living this Ordinary and Adequate, and how sometimes there’s really no room for anything else. It was this morning: Jacob had thrown up immediately after waking up. Now bathed and hungry four hours later, I was literally watching myself get juggled around my house, and every little bit of it had to do with bodily needs: All in the same instant Jacob needed yogurt, Joshua needed a diaper, and Merry needed her hair washed before she got out of the bath. It was tricky to know which should come first. The puddle of pee on the nursery floor was still there from thirty minutes ago but that was obviously not important.

It was a remarkably ordinary moment. It was full to the brim but nothing unmanageable so long as I kept my wits and wisdom to handle the triage feel of it effectively. But all this work to achieve mere adequacy is exhausting. We’ve had three separate puking incidents (four if you count the week Merry had it Wednesday and Jacob & I had it over the weekend as two separate occasions) in just over a month. Let’s just say I’m gun-shy now. I just expect puke every day. And pretty much every evening by dinner time I feel awful and weak and exhausted, and I arrive at the conclusion that tonight will be the night when I finally puke my own guts out all night.

I always turn out wrong, waking up the next morning wondrously thankful to be wrong again. I’m beginning to think the issue is just that by 5:00 p.m. I’m straight-up bone tired from a day of nothing more than running triage on a house full of body needs. Using up my body for their bodies, to the point that I think I’m literally ill by the end of every day, only to realize that I’m actually probably just hungry. There are heart needs to meet, too, and those are exhausting in a different way. But these days it’s an awful lot of manual labor and an awful lot of laundry, so much so that a “night off” has come to mean those evenings when all I have to do is sit on the couch and fold laundry and watch Netflix.

It’s a good thing I’ve come to see dignity and beauty in all this humanness, because on days like today when I am watching it juggle me around my house like a set of circus balls it’s good to feel satisfied that what I’m doing is enough. I’m unemployed, barely tapping into my professional skills, and empty of any grand notions of changing the world. (It’s also possible that I’m un-showered and wearing yoga pants.)

Maybe the world doesn’t need an endless procession of world-changers aware of their own unique awesomeness and ambitious to make their mark as much as it needs humans, aware that the business of being human, waking up each day to pray and work for daily bread, is not only adequate and enough, but just about as good, true, and beautiful as anything can be.

Now to finish that laundry and check on the coughing I hear that might be puking.

On Kim Davis, Bullying, and the Impossibility of World Peace

I have a few things to say about Kim Davis. I know everyone does, so forgive me, but these have been burning like fire shut up in my bones, to quote the songwriter.

On Sunday I stood in church and we sang about peace. “Hope dawns in a weary world when we begin to see all people’s dignity.” It’s a nice enough song – a little on the cheeseball side – but the celebration feels premature. This week it grated on my ears and stuck in my throat.

As Christians we are all about premature celebration, coming to The Table every Sunday to engage in a feast that hasn’t happened yet. “Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!” It’s true that all the world will, in wonder, whisper ‘Shalom,” as the song concludes with promise. But this particular prematurity doesn’t feel like hope and faith. It just makes me angry.

See, Kim Davis is not unworthy of the dignity and shalom we are singing about. It’s easy for that stream of the church that comes down on the side of the gay rights movement (seeing it framed as the same sort of humanitarian question as racial equality) to start waving victory flags; this summer the gay rights movement had a big win: according to a handful of people who are allowed to judge, these relationships deserve marriage licenses just as much as the next guy (and girl).

My problem is this: The work of the gay rights movement is not done with the SCOTUS ruling. That’s not the way our country works. We have somewhere along the way lost as a people an awareness of our own governmental process. The courts (that means both SCOTUS and Kim Davis) exist to uphold the law. They don’t make the law. That’s the job of the legislature. There was a reason this system was put in place at the inception of our country.

It was to handle the problem of bullying. The law transcends the wishes and opinions of individual people, and in its transcendence it protects the magistrates (we call them judges and county clerks) from having to be the meanies. Their job is just to do as they’re told by the law. And until the actual law has gay marriage on the books, Kim Davis is not failing in her duties by refusing those marriage licenses, and consequently no one can fault her.

Unfortunately this summer we are a little blinded by our celebration of SCOTUS, thinking that now finally there is law on this issue. My message to the gay rights community is this: Your work is not done. If you want to be able to insist that Kim Davis issues you a marriage license, it’s time to lobby your actual lawmakers.

Until then, Kim Davis has a right to her grey area as a member of the judicial branch of our government, and however rude and obnoxious and generally backwards you find her behavior, you have to acknowledge that she is within her rights as a citizen of this free country.

But there’s a bigger issue. Kim Davis has been thrown in jail for her religious convictions. She’s being seen as a bully, a member of the government gone rogue. She’s an embarrassment. But the problem is, in our collective embarrassment and disgust we have turned the tables and become the bullies. If we really can’t allow her to gum up our progress, due process would look like impeachment, and perhaps administrative leave in the meantime. She is an elected official, after all. No one has any business throwing this magistrate (not to mention citizen) in jail over something that we profess to value as a country (see Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner): bravery. She is bravely standing for what she believes and I don’t care how backwards and rude you think that is: you are just as backwards and rude if your solution is to jail her and scorn her.

It’s hard for me to say that. I grew up squarely planted in the religious conservative right. As a child I didn’t really think you could be a Christian and not be socially, politically, and morally conservative all the way across the board. When I discovered a bigger world out there (you’ll find this filed under “all people’s dignity”) I was angry at the monochromatic lie I’d found my identity in. It’s hard for me to stand in solidarity with Kim Davis, because I know the warts inside the conservative, fundamentalist church and I hate them because, while not technically a fundamentalist myself, I rubbed shoulders with this sector of the Church plenty. I identified with their long hair and long skirts and long lists of siblings. I identified enough, actually, to have a really hard time calling them “the Church” now because I find their moralisms routinely distract me, them, and (worst) the watching world from the glorious gospel of Jesus. I just can’t deal with it. It makes me crazy. As a loud-mouthed conservative Christian, I find Kim Davis embarrassing and I want her to go away. I don’t want the world to think this is what the Church looks like.

But this is my confession: that I am embarrassed by her. In my best moments I am not proud of that. If you corner me I will admit that, according to my system of thought and theology, she and I stand together at the foot of the cross of Christ, which makes her my sister. Sisters don’t bully each other or stand by and let someone else bully.

On Sunday as I groaned through our reflections on Shalom I recognized my own sin in being so quick to judge this annoying sister instead of looking for the good in her. Upon looking, I see it: a clear awareness of what her position as part of our judicial branch requires and does not require of her, a jealousy to protect that system of liberty-under-the-law, an integrity that lives what she believes, and, most of all, true bravery: a willingness to put herself in the public eye where she will have to bear all of its scoffing and ridicule and angry, bullying attempts at hiding her like she’s that embarrassing relative we can’t not invite to the party.

I’m going to acknowledge that she is braver than I. In my very writing here I have made that obvious: Go ahead and try to infer from what I’ve said what I think on the underlying issues about the legitimacy and goodness of gay marriage. I’ve very intentionally not planted my flag, and I suppose in reading this your conjecture will leave you horrified that I’m not like you and comforted that I am.

See, the anguish for me, and the reason bravery feels hard (too hard, to my shame) is that “my people” are not to be found in the middle of this question, if a middle exists. My people are the ones running out this summer for their hard won marriage licenses and my people are the Kim Davises. Somehow that’s the world I live in, and it is exhausting. So go ahead and think I’m on your side. I’m not even sure I know and I’m not even sure that matters.

What I do know is that Shalom is 100% elusive, and I hope there is a large sector of the liberal church that can stop waving their festive branches over the triumph of the SCOTUS ruling long enough to recognize that there is shame here this summer. Shame, yes. Shalom, no. When jailing a woman over her views because they don’t line up with ours and those of SCOTUS is our solution and maybe even our delight, we do not get to claim Shalom.

Perhaps my view from this place–where my communities feel like a frantic pendulum-swing between Kim Davis and the people she won’t marry–is a sane view. And what I’m here to report from what I can see is that Shalom is coming, but definitely not on our watch. There is no way for peace to exist before Christ comes to “judge the living and the dead” and in so doing ushers in the new heavens and the new earth. By this I mean to say that we will not, can not, ultimately, be the ones to usher this kingdom in, even though we try to live in a way that actively anticipates it. (I only wish I knew what that looked like.)

We keep sharing the peace of Christ amongst each other, but sometimes all we can see of that peace is its absence and impossibility, because as long as we have two sides seeking it, we will have two incompatible concepts of it, and Kim Davis will still be sitting in jail being the scapegoat. If she doesn’t get to be a participant in the peace, we are doing something wrong.

So Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

Remembering Ruth Ferguson

I got to know Ruth in the very early stages of her journey through Alzheimers’, at a point when she was still the consummate hostess, an active church musician, and a supportive, loyal wife. She was one of the loveliest women I have ever known and she inspired me in ways I remember daily.

Her husband was my organ teacher in college and before I’d ever met Ruth I’d heard her praises sung by the man who adored her like no one else on earth. There was no doubt that she meant the world to him. I was lucky enough to spend time in their home occasionally in my first few years in Minnesota, and then after I graduated and was staying around for awhile, John asked me if I’d stay with her as a companion now and then. So I took her grocery shopping every week, helped her bake Christmas cookies for the last Cantorei party she hosted, walked with her at the St. Olaf gym when it was too cold to be outside, and sat at her kitchen table drinking in – well – drinking in everything, really. On those quiet afternoons we talked about everything, but especially about our sons: hers newly a father, mine about to be born.

What I have foremost in my mind are a few impressions and a few anecdotes, and while no one will ever adequately capture Ruth in words, these little pieces of my memory inspire me daily to be a better person and live a better life.

Today as I drove through the rolling hills of Kentucky at the height of spring’s unfurling I thought of her for the hundredth time since she entered endless spring. For all the deep greens and luxurious days of Minnesota summer, it was spring that Ruth loved best. There was something about the colors of the greens – almost yellows – that was utmost beauty to Ruth and Ferg. Spring will always make me think of her.

I think of her almost every day, actually, and I have for several years. Ruth was good at living life. I aspire to be as stable and predictable as she was. I caught a fever from her: the fever of a daily walk – a once basic human activity that everyone seems too busy for these days. It’s true; to say I walk every day would be a gross exaggeration. To say that it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when I imagine the “good life” is for sure. Every day that I succeed in making a walk a priority for myself or for my kids, I think of Ruth. She wouldn’t miss a day. When it was too cold to be outside she would get a ride to the college gym. In less than half a lap, that petite little lady would outpace my waddly, pregnant self and leave me huffing and puffing. What I remember most is her attitude toward that daily ritual. It was nothing short of affection. She was dedicated to it and it seemed to be a big part of her happy personality, and even as her memory failed her, she would never forget her walk. Someday while we walk I will tell my kids about Ruth and how she lived this way.

I want to tell my kids about her carrots and celery, too, and her ubiquitous side salads at dinner, and how so much of her life flowed beautifully because of how ordinary and constant it was. In the fridge were always two plastic tubs, filled with carrot and celery sticks standing on their ends in just a little water. Whenever the veggies ran low we would cut more and whenever Ruth wanted a snack she had it ready. They were a staple of her lunch, alongside her Swedish rye crisps and her natural crunchy peanut butter. The fact that lunch was always the same seemed to be a pleasure to her, and it stood in sharp contrast to the smorgasbord I’d come to expect as a modern kid on a college campus known for its endless buffet fare.

I was a student when Ruth quit her church job and when she gave up driving. The day came when she couldn’t keep track of what verse of a hymn the congregation was singing. And one day she had a car accident. But unlike so many people in the world, it wasn’t her colleagues or her husband who made these hard decisions for her. She knew when it was time and she accepted it with dignity and humility and always a sense of humor. She couldn’t bear the thought of being a danger to someone else on the road so she announced it was time to turn in her keys.

And then there she was, home all the time except for her daily walks and her occasional outings with friends. She kept her home lovely and she was never too attached to what she was busy with to stop and dote on The MagnifiCat, “Maggie.” Maggie loved to sip water out of the bathtub spout, so Ruth and Maggie were always disappearing up the stairs for another drink.

Perhaps my favorite of all Ruth’s predictable ways was her little speech about chocolate. Every time I was with her she would dip into her stash in the cupboard for a couple chocolate chips. Ruth was diabetic and had to stay away from sugar, especially to keep her Alzheimer’s symptoms managed. But, she would explain to me every day, as fresh and new as the sun each morning, the doctor warned her that it was better to have just a little every once in awhile than to deprive yourself so much that eventually you’d stop resisting and binge one day. I’m pretty sure she thought she was eating chocolate once in a blue moon, but I don’t think she’d have cared if she ever realized the truth.

The truth was, Ruth had an unflappable sense of humor. I have never seen anyone so down to earth about something as personal as Alzheimer’s. She didn’t think twice about explaining, “Oh, you know, I have a disease in my brain so I can’t remember things.” She was never embarrassed about it, either, no matter how many times she’d have to ask me what she was planning to make for dinner.

I loved Ruth’s kindness and humility, her hospitality and generosity and good humor, her loyalty to her husband and his work, her own work, and her son and his family. I loved her home and the place of beauty and peace it was – the artistic outlet it was for her and her husband. The little idiosyncrasies I was privileged enough to be a witness to in the time we spent together will stay with me forever. They were the sorts of mundane things that made Ruth Ruth on a very fundamental level and I find myself aspiring to be like her not only in her daily constitutional and her veggies (and her chocolate), but in her humility and humor. Never did a person grow old and come to the end of her days on earth with such untarnished dignity and grace.