One night in South Sudan

October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments

squarepromo_3-2A year and a few months ago, I visited South Sudan with the Dallas-based microfinance nonprofit Seed Effect.

I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!

***

When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.

South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.

“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”

I never know quite how to respond to these questions.

After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.

When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.

Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.

Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.

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Other times, I talk about the war.

It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.

Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.

Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”

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Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.

And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.

*

I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.

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We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.

We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.

Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.

We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.

As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.

Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.

We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.

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Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.

By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.

I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.

The bus pulled to a stop.

We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.

Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.

We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.

Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.

My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?

I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.

As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.

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More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.

Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?

But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.

The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.

The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.

There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.

So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.

I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.

Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.

Scaring us was a way to pass the time.

*

When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.

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Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.

Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.

The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.

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Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.

I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.

After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.

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Evening, morning, and noonday

September 29, 2016 § 4 Comments

A friend of mine recently introduced me to The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle, a trilogy of prayer manuals that are a modern reworking of fixed-hour prayer. With roots in Judaism and early Christianity, fixed-hour prayer is one of the oldest Christian spiritual practices. While it has evolved over the centuries, it is essentially the practice of praying (often by chanting) certain predetermined prayers at certain predetermined times of the day.

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Since learning about The Divine Hours, I’ve realized I’m a bit late to the game. Now, I come across the books everywhere: on friends’ bookshelves, tossed around in various conversations, and even in the occasional artsy Instagram post.

Isn’t that how it often is? Something can be right in front of your face, and you don’t notice it until you need it.

*

On a late summer morning, my friend and I settled ourselves beneath a blanket, mugs of steaming coffee in our hands, and chanted together the prayers and passages allotted for the day. It was an unusual thing to do in her modern apartment, our monotone voices joining a legacy of petitioners extending far into the past. While at first, the chanting felt strange on my lips, uncomfortable even, in its sincerity and unconventionality, soon, I settled into the mantra, our low voices soothing to my soul, the simple act of singing words of thanks, of request, of remembrance, of praise good in and of themselves.

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The prayers set me firm in my body for the day, but more than that, I liked what Tickle wrote in her introduction: “The Divine Hours are prayers of praise offered as a sacrifice of thanksgiving and faith to God…The fact that the creature grows strong and his or her faith more sinewy and efficacious as a result of keeping the hours is a by-product (albeit a desirable one) of that practice and not its purpose.”

In a world in which there is so much pressure for everything from the work we do to the prayers we pray to have immediate material efficacy, it was a relief to simply enter into a practice with no other goal than to see and acknowledge what is good.

*

A passage that continuously appears throughout The Divine Hours, and one that draws my eye again and again, is this verse from Psalm 55: In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice. My friend pointed it out to me on that first day, and each time it reappears, I think: yes, that passage is for me.

Because isn’t that what I do all day long, complain and lament, both to others and to God? And isn’t that a picture of grace, that these complaints and laments do not fall on deaf ears, that however big or small my daily trials, they are always heard, they are always acknowledged.

This, I think, is why I’m coming to love The Divine Hours. This continuous, all day, everyday, looking for God. This turning every complaint and lament, every hope and exultation, every thought, small and large, up to the sky in habit-forming rhythm. This basic movement of the lips and of the heart.

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The bump of a fall

July 6, 2016 § 4 Comments

Every so often, usually in the late afternoon when I’m a bit tired and would rather like a latte or a nap, a small voice in my head wakes up and this is what it says: “You, Elizabeth Hamilton, you are a failure. You have tried, and you have failed. You don’t have what it’s got.”

When this happens, I usually try my best to ignore the voice, and when that doesn’t work, I usually try my best to reason with it. “No, no,” I say, “I’m not a failure. Look at all I’ve accomplished! Look at all of the good things in my life! Why would you say such a thing about me!?”

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Yet, despite my best efforts, the voice in my head usually wins. Oh, occasionally I manage to pile enough of my accomplishments and a litany of good things in my life on top of the voice to muffle its insults, but the effort always leaves me emotionally drained and wondering if that voice might be correct after all. Maybe I am a failure. Maybe I don’t have what it’s got.

I know I’m not the only one out there with this voice in her head, and that’s got me thinking: why, exactly, do we think we’re failing? And why is failure such a bad thing?

And here is what I’m learning, here is what I’m glimpsing through the fog: failure isn’t such a bad thing, and though we’ve all failed in some ways at some things and succeeded in some ways at others, we ourselves are not failures, at least, not in the way the small voice thinks.

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When we fail at something, it hurts, yes, but it is within that space of disappointment and even despair that, if we’re willing, we can begin to understand greater truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.

I have failed and succeeded at a number of things in my short life. Yet while each failure rocked me to the core, split me open, broke me down, I found myself opening up.

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I found myself learning through failure what it was that I truly wanted, which turned out to be quite different than what I thought. I found myself developing empathy for others in similarly shattered situations, and out of this empathy came the greatest gift of all: love. Not love in a wishy-washy, I love M&M’s sort of way, but a deep, abiding love that sees the humanity in others and wills their good.

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And so, the voice in my head is wrong to call me a failure. Because what is failure without a definition of success? The two are wrapped together, opposing concepts known only as one.

To the voice in my head, success is immediate, and usually involves a vague notion of prestige and money and power. But with a little consideration, I’m seeing a new vision for success, one that finds fulfillment even in the center of disappointment, one that lets setbacks split me open so that a never-ending flow of warmth and light spills forth, one that realizes how you and I and everyone else are at our best when we are softened, and that softening comes most generously through the bump of a fall.

*Photos from my recent trip to Iceland.

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Lenses of gray

April 26, 2016 § 3 Comments

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.


I suppose it’s a personality quirk, this tendency of mine toward melancholy. In fact, all of the personality tests I’ve ever taken (Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, all of those free tests on BuzzFeed) tell me so.

If some people see the world through rose colored glasses, I see the world through lenses of gray.

Where others might find hope, I see a shattered world. Where others might find abundance, I see only what could have been.

Sometimes, this melancholy is warranted. Certainly, there are times when it’s appropriate to grieve, to feel downcast, to be sorrowful. But other times, this grayness can get the best of me.

Other times, I need to remind myself that while, yes, there is much to lament over, there is much to rejoice over too. There is so much goodness in this world. There is so much to give thanks for.

Which is why I’m reminding myself today: If a sacrament is a sign of God’s love in the world, then this life is flush with them.

*

It is eating bowlfuls of my grandmother’s tortilla soup, simmered to spicy perfection. It is long walks in a green-canopied neighborhood that smells overwhelmingly like sugar-sweet wisteria. It is planning trips to a ranch in West Texas and a gravel road in Iceland and a lake town in Northern Michigan for a dearest of friend’s wedding. It is being asked to be maid of honor by another close friend.

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It is creamy lattes and bright green matcha tea and sour popsicles in the heat. It is morning sunlight illuminating my room like a sunbeam. It is hot black coffee and the friendly fern growing beside the windowpane. It is warm, shorts-wearing weather. It is looking above a concrete apartment complex to see a sky streaked in lavenders and blues.

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It is Blue Bell ice cream eaten in the starlit sun room of an old yellow-painted house. It is green-sprouting vines growing along red brick walls and making friends with a local barista. It is fresh mint in Earl Grey tea and evenings of hot yoga.

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It is this, all of it. It is a sign.

And it is good.

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After the Storm: an essay

April 25, 2016 § Leave a comment

I shared this essay on all of the usual social media sites when it was published several weeks ago, but in case you missed it (and if you’re interested!), my essay After the Storm appeared in the fifth issue of the lovely Cordella Magazine, an online literary magazine that features the work of women artists and writers across the world.

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The piece is a somber reflection on the aftermath of the tornadoes that hit North Texas over Christmas.

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It started with some meditations I jotted down after helping some friends who’d survived the tornadoes clean up their house, and through the editorial advice of a friend, became the essay it is.

We say a prayer of thanksgiving for safety, and I am glad to whisper it. I have known safety in moments of danger, and it is something to be thankful for.

For any interested readers, you can find the essay here.

Vignettes on love {2}

January 28, 2016 § 2 Comments

Several weeks ago, I had an idea, an idea to document through writing some of the instances of love in my life.

The idea was born after I experienced a sense of love during a strangely mystical yoga class. I liked the idea a lot because I knew that writing about love would force me to be more aware of the love that already exists in my life, and I’ve found that when I acknowledge love, I become more grateful for it, and when I become more grateful, I am also filled with joy.

And, let’s face it, we could all use a little more joy.

*

For better or for worse, I have a tendency to plan what I want to write in my head long before I sit down to actually write it. So, last week, when I was visiting my parents on the East Coast, I began outlining this blog post in my mind.

I wanted to write about how I’ve experienced love through provision.

Like many adults, one of the things that scares me more than anything else is a lack of financial security. More than once this year (and it’s only January y’all…), the scant number of dollars in my bank account has scared me witless. But just as I began to fear I’d end up homeless or, worse, working behind a cash register at Walmart, that’s when a check I forgot was coming to me would suddenly appear in the mail.

Call me crazy, call me full of spiritual mumbo jumbo, but each time I received one of those checks, income for some freelance writing service rendered, I saw it as a sign of provision and provision as a sign of God’s love.

I thought about Matthew 6:26, Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? and I believed that while, of course, each check that appeared was really just the result of a job well done, it was also used by God as a sign to me saying, “I love you. I will provide for you.”

I guess I think the things that happen in our lives can have multiple meanings.

*

That’s what I wanted to write about when I outlined this blog post last week.

Of course, that was before I returned from my trip to find, yes, two checks in the mail, but also a bill, a bill I thought was sorted out by my insurance company long ago, a bill that far outnumbered any money earned.

Provision indeed.

For a while, I thought, well, I guess I’ll have to come up with some other instance of love to write about because clearly this isn’t it.

But then I changed my mind.

Because the truth is, I do still feel provided for, I do still feel loved. I do still feel like I’d rather move forward with trust in the promise of provision, in hope that the things that happen to me and the people I love are for our good. I do still feel like whenever I reach the end of my wits, that’s when I receive a tiny little sign, sometimes in the form of a slip of paper, a sign that if a bird is a beloved creature of God, so are we — and so, so, so much more.

*

A few photos from the trip:

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National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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Pentagon Memorial, Arlington, VA

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Bristol, Rhode Island

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Bristol, Rhode Island

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Nothing like Mom’s kitchen flowers <3

Vignettes on love {1}

January 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

Last week, I decided to splurge on an evening yoga class.

I was feeling restless and anxious, restless because, well, I’m always on the lookout for that Next Big Thing, be it a trip or an experience or a person to befriend, and wanted that Next Big Thing to happen now dammit, and anxious because, as much as I believe in providence, the future often seems like a huge question mark looming over me, threatening to disrupt my otherwise pleasant life, and on that day, in my life, the future was all but completely blocking out the sun.

Yoga is one of the best ways I know to calm my nerves and pull me out of my own fruitless thoughts. So, I donned my workout clothes, filled up a bottle of water, and headed to the studio for a grueling hour-long class of downward dogs and upward dogs and warrior ones (and twos and threes) and tree poses and eagle poses and other poses whose names I don’t remember but man, were they hard.

At the end of class, our teacher dimmed the lights and turned on some classical music. She instructed us to move into our final pose, the pose which concludes every yoga class: shavasana (a.k.a. corpse pose).

In shavasana, you lie on your back with your arms and legs slightly spread apart. You close your eyes and breath deeply, relaxing your body into the floor and relieving any tension in the muscles. Traditionally, this position lasts around thirty minutes, though we Westerners shorten it to around five (I guess we have to rush everything, even our yoga classes).

As I lay on my back, my muscles loose, my skin shining with perspiration, the air I breathed hot and smelling of fresh eucalyptus incense, I began to relax. I felt the floor envelope my body, holding me against it like the palm of a hand might cradle something small and fragile. And as my body slackened and my mind quieted, something else appeared: an overwhelming sense of love.

A sense that, in the middle of my restlessness and anxiety, I was loved, not just by my friends and family, whose love is good, but imperfect, as is my love for them, but by something bigger, by God. And in being loved by God, by being enfolded in God’s wings, by being cupped in His large hand, I was protected, I was okay. Maybe not in the way I always want to be, with complete surety about everything and complete protection from every physical and emotional and even spiritual harm, but in a deeper way, an abiding way that would lead me from here through life to eternity.

Now, I am the first to admit that this kind of phenomena is easily dismissed by those who consider themselves rational (of which I am one). A rational person could easily say that I experienced this deep sense of abiding love because I was overheated. Or dehydrated. Or perhaps daydreaming in my listless shavasana pose.

Yes. Perhaps. I won’t say any of those explanations are impossible.

But I also won’t deny my own experience, and my experience tells me that I felt, for one brief moment, what it’s like to be wholly loved, and the freedom that comes from it, the freedom to open my eyes in that dark room, to roll up my mat, to move effortlessly across the creaking wooden floor to the air-conditioned lobby of that yoga studio with lightness and purpose and assurance in my existence as one who is loved.

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from my recent trip to Washington, D.C.

Advent: week four

December 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

I’ve been putting off writing a blog post for this final week of Advent because lately, my mind has felt rather like a dry bed of ideas. Any beginning sprig of a thought withers and dies. Then, this morning I cut my thumb on a broken light bulb and found myself barely able to type this meager paragraph, let alone a whole blog post. I decided to see that as a sign and let myself off the hook, but so I won’t have to say I failed in my resolution to blog every week, I’ll share an Advent reflection from last year. Wishing you the merriest of Christmases!

*

“For nothing is impossible with God.”

The words leap from the page and lodge in my mind. They are the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth.

The angel tells her she will have a son, not by her betrothed Joseph, but by the Holy Spirit. Her son is the not only the son of Mary, but the Son of God.

Well. How many forms of impossibility can I name here? The impossibility of the existence of God; the impossibility of an angel; the impossibility of an angel speaking to a woman; the impossibility of a virgin having a baby; the impossibility of a baby being the Son of God.

Mary sees the impossibility.

“How will this be?” she asks.

“Nothing is impossible with God,” says the angel.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary says. “May it be to me as you have said.”

I am struck. Here is Mary, accepting the impossible possibility. How? How?

Because she knows nothing is impossible with God.

I believe a lot of things are impossible with God. I fear God Himself is an impossibility. How many days per week, times per day, minutes per hour, do I doubt God’s presence, doubt God’s power, doubt God’s love? Don’t answer; I don’t want to know.

But the angel says, “nothing is impossible with God,” and Mary nods, opens herself to impossibility, and the Son of God is born.

Mary is receptive. She listens for God, she hears, she receives, and the impossible is made possible within her.

It’s Advent, and I’m thinking a lot about impossible things. I think I see the limits of possibility, a thin line at the border of my life, fencing me in.

But the angel’s words are there in my memory, saying, “nothing is impossible with God,” and something in me stirs. The line begins to blur. Beyond the fence I see a field that stretches on and on, full of green grass gently swaying.

If Advent is about waiting, it’s also about being receptive to what we’re waiting for, and the beginning of being receptive is believing the words of the angel who says, “For nothing is impossible with God.”

Advent: week three

December 14, 2015 § 3 Comments

It hardly feels like Christmastime here in Dallas. I’m sitting outside under the leafy oak tree, sunlight dappling the green lawn, birds chirping in the limbs overhead. Earlier, I jogged around the block, enjoying the 70 degree weather in my T-shirt and running shorts.

Though it’s hardly Christmas-like, I am glad for the warmth. There is something sweet in weather like this, something that makes me rather nostalgic for summers in high school, for the excitement of driving down a rarely trodden dirt road, for the pleasure of climbing a hefty low-limbed tree.

This weather is making me feel good, making me feel something rather like joy, something rather like hope.

*

And of course, hope is at the heart of Advent.

But hope isn’t always so easy to come by, and the thing we have hope in during Advent (namely, that the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby) often seems silly at best and downright mad at worst.

This weather, though, it’s making me look at hope through new eyes. It’s making me pause and wonder, what if?

*

What if the eternal and everlasting being we call God tucked Himself into the tiny and temporal being of a baby?

And what if He did that so that He could grow up and die?

And what if, in dying, He turned back the clocks, unfolded the sheets of time, threw back the stars in their galaxies?

What if He’s doing that in us now, clawing away our crusty exteriors, breathing fresh air into the dark holes of our being, filling us up with honey and wine?

What if we stepped back from our expectations of what the world is and will be and always has been, and thought, maybe God came to Earth as a little baby?

What if we dared to hope, dared to look around for God, dared to see Him, if just for one brief instant, here in the sunshine of a balmy winter’s day, here, on Earth?

Advent: week two

December 5, 2015 § 4 Comments

“It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are still alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger for them.” ~ George Eliot


I have a confession to make: sometimes, I twist my prayers during Advent, which should concern the coming of the Lord, into my own personal appeal for the things I want which I don’t have yet.

Advent is supposed to be about anticipating God’s coming, His birth long ago, His return in the future, and His presence with us now. But because Advent is all about waiting for something desired, I tend to confuse waiting for God with waiting for all of those other things I want.

Some of those things are good, some of those things are bad, and some of those things can be good or bad, depending on the situation. Nevertheless, instead of praying, “come, Lord, come,” I find myself praying, “come, would you just give me at least a few of these things I want already?”

I know this isn’t what Advent is supposed to be about, but it has me thinking: when is it okay to say, “all right, God, I want You, I really do, but I’d rather like this other thing, too?”

Because that’s really what I want to pray, and am already praying, but I worry that’s rather like saying, “God, sorry to break it to You, but You’re just not enough.”

And that can’t be right, can it?

*

I hear Christians say all of the time (and say it myself, on occasion), “God is enough.”

But what, exactly, does that mean?

Some days, I find it doesn’t mean anything. Those are the days when I’m not praying or listening or sitting in silence with God, when I’m distracted by my to-do list, by my worries, by my fears. Because after all, how can God be enough for me when I never think about Him, when I don’t invite Him into my sorrow, when I don’t ask Him for discernment navigating my life?

But even when I am in communion with God, there are still times when He feels distant, even nonexistent. And there are other times when the struggle I face isn’t eased or removed by His presence.

In other words, times when God doesn’t seem like enough.

*

But then I remember something important. I remember that God is an infinite love, a love greater than anything I could ever imagine. And I remember that I am like an ever-emptying cup, longing to be filled.

My never-ending desire wants something that is infinitely satisfying. Anything less would prove disappointing in the end.

And though I don’t receive understanding and fulfillment all at once, through spiritual discipline, through prayer and longing and searching and listening, I draw near to Him, and He slowly, wonderfully fills me up.

Maybe our cups will never be full until the Kingdom of God appears. Maybe that’s why all of these other desires seem so appealing to us now. Maybe that’s why waiting for Him to come again during Advent is so important, because then, only then, God, revealed in His fullness, will finally be enough.

*

But what about all of those other things I want? What about that fiery word, desire?

There are so many good and beautiful things in this world, and I would very much like to experience them all, or at least as many as I can.

And I think I should. I think you should too.

I think there are many desires laid in our hearts by God, and sometimes those desires become twisted with sin, and sometimes those desires drive us mad, and sometimes, when those desires are filled, we find they weren’t exactly what we wanted after all, and sometimes, when those desires are filled, we find they fill us up with more than we ever thought we could hold.

None of these desires need detract from our love of God. Many of them can even bring us closer to Him.

After all, He is not only infinite love, but infinite beauty and infinite goodness too, and we see glimpses of Him in the loving, beautiful, and good things of this world.

Perhaps, then, God is a lot more intwined in what we want than we might think. Perhaps, then, God is revealing Himself to us all of the time, even through the unfurling of our desires.

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