sackcloth & ashes

The months of great discomfort continue on. I find no peace in my heart and no peace on earth.

A drop of clarity came this morning, as I read more of “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla F. Saad. In this secular book, written by a Muslim woman, I find the traps I’ve fallen into. Oh, Lord, there are so many ways I have looked at you and your world through lenses prescribed to me by people who knew you not.

I continue to work on wiping them away.

I wondered in June, as people started to crowd back into spaces, if it were really so unbearable to sit with yourself at home that you would endanger yourself and others for a meal or a trip, even for a church service. I know we build our lives around these rituals and events. I miss them too.

And I know it has been almost unbearable. Sitting with myself the last few months, I have grown increasingly angry. Part of this is the writing. I work on poems, two short stories, and a novel that have bloomed forth from my own experiences, and I grow so weary of revisiting the traumas of my past. The way I was given a barbed cross to flagellate myself by those who will contort their own to fit into any shape that will give them power. The way they told me to beware of false prophets blasting through movies and music while they kneel before wolves. The way they wrapped blessing around success and sold it to me so that every failure felt like judgment. The way they tell you to give your life to God but continue to play puppet master over your decisions.

At first, I tried to give the anger to God, sometimes still believing him to be a bit of a genie: take this anger and grant me a wish for peace. I have found, though, that he won’t take everything like they said he would.

I take to the image of the Peaceable Kingdom from Isaiah 11, often, as a way to grasp onto hope. It has just dawned on me that the lamb, the goat, the calf are expected to do nothing. They have no power there. The wolf, the leopard, and the lion? They have the power to not eat the innocent, the small, the young. The strong, in humility, must stop eating the weak.

I’m angry because the powerful keep eating. I’m angrier at those powerful who keep eating and say its their blessing. I look at my skin, scarred from the chewing some wolves have done, and I rage.

But then, there’s the wolves who pretend they can’t possibly be wolves…

When I come to scripture these days, I try to purposely recast myself in the places I typically have not. Not – would I ignore the broken and beaten man on the side of the road, but would I, beaten and broken, accept help from the one I despise. As a Roman citizen, what would I think of Jesus? As a pharisee trying my best, how could I not fear him? Who am I not accepting help from? How am I fearing Jesus and his threats to what I think are right and good?

So, what sheep am I continuing to eat? What power do I hold onto?

In this quiet and lonely and disappointing discomfort, I’ve found myself in sackcloth and ashes, repenting for so much. This new-to-me holy repenting that peels away those false lenses and brings God into clearer focus is so much better than the fearful, terrifying, ticket-to-heaven repentance I punched for so long. It’s holy and purifying because the love is already there; I just have to accept it.

I look at my covetous heart and grieve. I look at my complacency over systemic white supremacy and grieve. I look at the things I kept looking away from when I was comfortable. I look at all these sheep, torn apart. “Are you going to love people or not,” I ask myself. “There’s no half way.”

Help me lay what power I have down, I pray.


I’ve thought relentlessly about this image from Isaiah 26 since it appeared in a prayer from Pray as You Go last week: We were pregnant, we writhed, but we gave birth to wind (26:18). This year, I have found so much of what we thought was solid and life-giving was just wind. And wind can be so destructive. It can disperse so much. I repent.

Without all this anger and discomfort, would I have made it here? Would this have surfaced, could I have ran away and into routine? Would I have seen the futility and danger of all this wind?

We think God can transform all things to good, but what if he has no space for my anger? What if he said, “Oh, that’s yours alone, and you have some work to do. When you are ready to quit writhing about on the ground laboring over the wind; when you are ready to stop skulking through the fields licking your lips at opportunity; when, in weeks or months or maybe even years, you’re ready to forgive yourself and others, I will be here, having already done it.”

Writing Crazies

I am working to bring together and organize ideas I’ve jotted in multiple journals and notebooks, on receipts and hotel paper. I am going through files on an old hard drive that has carried over stories and poems and essays from computer to computer for the last two decades. Revisiting the heartbreaks and pain of myself at 16 is a surreal experience. My college essays are both more impressive and are more flooded with adverbs like “truly” and “clearly” than I remember. Eesh.

I have saved drafts for this blog that rest like unfired pottery.

Goethe said, “Do not hurry; do not rest.”

My thoughts are fragmented too. I try to finish tasks only to be distracted by something else. I zone out to Animal Crossing just to feel like I’m completing anything.

Writing is lonely and exhausting and so completely voluntarily that it is impossible not to feel foolish every moment of the day. To sit and mine your experiences and observations, to think hard about people, to labor your imagination and wear out your heart, to slash at words both with the reckless abandon of a maniac and with the precision of a surgeon — it’s all madness and heartbreak. It’s humiliation.

Nikki Giovanni said “A lot of people refuse to do things because they don’t want to go naked, don’t want to go without guarantee. But that’s what’s got to happen. You go naked until you die.”

In those old files too are drafts of business plans and deliverables from previous jobs; I read old resumes and the bullet points are like hieroglyphics. All those dreams and accomplishments, yet I keep finding myself here, hunched over blank pages despite all the things I have hunched over before.

Anne Lamott says, “You can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town.”

Inheritance

An experiment in microfiction, wherein I try to tell a story in under 250 words.

June would have no children.

“Lord, you alone are my inheritance. You are my prize, my pleasure, and my portion,” she prayed over the petunias spilling from the pots on her porch. She plucked the dead heads with no great tenderness, dislodging the plant itself. June, feeling the plant wiggle up from the soil too far, winced.

Her husband, in the field cursing at a broken-down tractor, was no father. Still, they loved one another.

At dinner, he rubbed his rough hand across his cheek. “The apple tree is et up with maggot flies.”

“All the rain?” she asked. He shrugged. It was all pestilence and plague.

Over the garden, she sang hymns of redemption. Still, the dirt remained too full of clay and the leaves too eager to blight. Harvest was light. As a little girl, she watched her zealot uncle march through the pastures preaching to the cows. They hadn’t seemed to mind. She wondered now if her seeds were heathen.

“You are my prize, my pleasure, and my portion,” over the petunias. And they always sang back in full blooms all summer.

“Wonder why,” Oscar, her husband, had whispered to her in the dark, many years ago, “that your belly stays empty.”

She had shrugged. It was all pestilence and plague.

Jesus Said Hard Things

A Meditation

This morning, I told Jesus, “You are tricky. You know you are tricky.”

Jesus said hard things.

I’m not a theologian. God has built in me a love for words. I am trained to analyze words. I was trained to micro-analyze words. Put your finger on the poem and focus on that word and work outward.

Jesus said hard things.

I am not a theologian. I know there is wider context to explore here.

But Jesus said,  “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.”

And I will move into the wider parts of Matthew 10. I will move into the wider context as I study this. But this week, my finger has been on verse 34, one from which I have always ran.

Truth slices, doesn’t it? Like a sword might. It is not peaceful to have false histories sliced open.

Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.

Jesus slices. It is not peaceful to cut yourself from whatever ensnares you so that you may follow him. It is not peaceful to cut yourself from comfort.

Jesus said hard things.

My Prayer for May 29, 2020

Help, Lord, for no one is faithful anymore;
    those who are loyal have vanished from the human race.
Everyone lies to their neighbor;
    they flatter with their lips
    but harbor deception in their hearts.

May the Lord silence all flattering lips
    and every boastful tongue—
those who say,
    “By our tongues we will prevail;
    our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”

“Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan,
    I will now arise,” says the Lord.
    “I will protect them from those who malign them.”
And the words of the Lord are flawless,
    like silver purified in a crucible,
    like gold refined seven times.

You, Lord, will keep the needy safe
    and will protect us forever from the wicked,
who freely strut about
    when what is vile is honored by the human race. (Psalm 12, NIV)

My Lord, my Lord, the groaning of your children scorches the earth. I confess that I have not walked their paths, so give me ears to hear their cries. May I hear the grief in fires. May I hear the fear in smashed windows. May I hear anguish I’ve never felt expressed in ways I must now understand. I repent. Forgive me. Take from me the strut in my walk. Take from me the boasting of my lips. Humble me, Lord — with grace when possible, with the cleansing fire of the Spirit as needed. Renew in me the bold life of Jesus Christ who walked against the empire that would kill him, knowing the birth of God’s Kingdom was worth the death of self. Ever stumbling, give me strength to match his march. In the submission to truth and discomfort, sanctify me. Let it be so — Amen.

Dusty Roads Make Dirty Feet

On Folly Beach, a wave knocked me over, and I went from being a person gleefully wading into the ocean to a panicked girl screaming about her phone. That iPhone never came back to life, and I lost some fantastic pictures of my parents seeing the ocean for the first time in decades and cool pictures of Charleston, SC. But I also lost a voicemail I had saved so I could replay my mawmaw’s voice when I missed her.

In that devastation, my dad put his arm around my neck and assured me that when I needed to hear her voice, I could ask the Holy Spirit to bring its sound to me. He was right. I ask the Spirit to bring her voice up from my memories sometimes, and it’s there. Not always as clear as a voicemail may have been, but somehow more resonate because it comes from deep holy places in my soul, like how maybe I’m still in all those moments in God’s time. I remember as a little girl, spending the night with her, curled up against her, and her telling me the story of Goldilocks and then screaming mid-sentence because a little miller moth hit her in the mouth. Now, if you knew Ila, you can probably hear her without even having been there for that occasion.

And sometimes, even when I’m not asking, He brings it on the wind, usually while I’m in a garden or a flower bed. I won’t kid myself, either. She’s there whispering when I’m being too shy. She’s there in my own voice when I get angry.

I wrote a few posts ago about how I feel God when I’m with other people, particularly strangers. Seems to me the Holy Spirit likes to come rushing in when I’m holding the hand of someone I barely know. Yet, there it blows, bring up to me the memory I hold deep in my soul that we’re all family. Nowadays, those moments don’t come. I buy fully into the power of social distancing and masks, even though I mourn a bit the way you can feel the hesitation and suspicion in our interactions. At a store recently, a woman dropped some of her items and my body made a rush to help her, but then my brain blared an alarm, and so I muffled from behind my mask, “Can I help you?” and she muffled from hers, “No, but thank you!” The rumble of the Spirit was there a little bit. But muffled.

It’s lonely to be away from people, these other parts of the Body. Even as an introverted homebody, I long for embrace and communion and Communion and eye contact. I think of all the times in Communion, I’ve heard the words “in remembrance of me,” and how it never dawned on me that there would be days that even Communion itself would be a memory.

Yet, I think about my dad and the Holy Spirit and how the first saints in the light of ascension must have depended upon that spirit memory to take those baby steps forward.

Spirit, help me remember. Help me taste the bread and wine. Help me feel my brothers’ and sisters’ warm hugs and see their smiling eyes. Remember, remember, remember. Spirit, help me remember. Where they have helped me remember You, please help me remember them.

Extra Things

The Architecture of Our Blood

The Architecture of Our Blood by Amanda Wenisch

I can learn nothing from trees
about the architecture of our blood.
What use is there in tracing back a line
to Scottish chicken farmers, hungry Irish, or curly-headed Brits?
I know it full in my prints —
the anger in the angles,
the beams of thick spiritual zest,
the floors muddy and beaten by the anxious pacing of our wide feet,
and this house sinking into sands, floor by floor,
until the roof is swallowed by time.

7.14.15 – 5.8.20

7.14.15 by Amanda Wenisch

Squash blossoms open into five-point stars
And wave in a constellation from the garden, promising fruit soon.
Today, New Horizons showed us Pluto after soaring through space for nine years.
It shakes loose in me some doubt of God.
How can in this vastness anything be sure?
How can anything see me, know me, love me, save me?
The breeze pushes through the squash stars, and they dance.
Then too I see the shaking marigolds, yellow dwarfs casting light in the gloomy rain.
I hear the Psalmist sing from them:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?


I wrote that poem five years ago. Back then I still fretted some over my doubt, but these days I embrace it. When I start to feel the ground shake under me, I’ve accepted that God is big enough and loving enough to handle my fear and doubts. When I go full-doubt, all squinting and cynical, He does not throw at me wrath or shame. He follows me there.

The world, even the parts of it that profess to be Christian, is a terrible proving ground of God’s character. Because it’s what we see and hear and feel and taste, we can be easily duped into thinking the way our world reacts is how God is – full of retribution and war and violence and disease and backward justice. Pshaw.

Psalm 139 is how God is. And there, at the end, as God has followed the Psalmist to every height and depth, he does not condemn for anxious thoughts or offensive ways — he leads the Psalmist from that place.

Jesus is how God is. Jesus saw doubt and gave to the doubter what he needed. Jesus knows what it feels like to ask where are you? Jesus explained to the Father that we just don’t know.

I don’t run from my questions. I don’t tremble in my doubt. I let it be. I invite God into it. Surely, this too, must delight him because it means I’m still working — still accepting that, as Paul said, I only know in part. I’m still clawing at the truth of him. There’s still mystery to explore. There’s still love to give. There’s still feet to wash. There’s still room at the table. There’s still more of my life to lay down.


Yo, an earlier version of this had a huge mistake in it. I hope no one saw it. Whoops.

The Family of Things

Is it appropriate to put “disassociation” as a skill on your resume?

I’m starting with a joke because this is not what I wanted to publish today.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This was the poem I asked my friend to read first when I sent her a collection of Mary Oliver’s poems while she was away, taking treatment for a second bout of cancer. I thought this one in particular would bring peace to her in a lonely time. She replied a few days later with her thoughts and to say she had found some others that she was excited about, but we never got to discuss which ones. When she passed away this week, I read “Wild Geese” and resented all things, as the anger stage of grief requires.

This loss set about in me a return to my body which I left sometime around the start of the Covid-19 crisis — ah, disassociation. All of the global loss and pain has been so much to carry on top of the normal day-to-day things we continue to deal with, that I shoved it into a small tiny pebble in my shoe. I’ve been walking around in mild discomfort, but I’ve been walking (aimlessly scrolling, thoughtlessly watching, generalized numbing). Then, confronted with my own tangible loss, realizing there would be nowhere to put this grief, no service to attend, no friends to hug, no typical goodbye, I felt the tug of the earth on this flesh made of dirt. That pebble has worn blisters on my feet. My sock is soaked in blood.

I wrote three drafts of this post today, decided to abandon it for something cheerier, but Mary Oliver’s lines from her poem “Heavy” echoed in my heart:

“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”

So, today, I will pull the grief from my shoe and hold its heaviness up to the sun. I will feel its weight and the exhaustion in my arms. There’s nowhere to put it but in the light. I will acknowledge this exhaustion was here before a crisis took away the busyness of my life because I don’t always carry things well. Today is a time to weep and a time to mourn.

I knew my friend Rosanna for only a few brief years, but to me, she was a stalwart soul of curiosity and a voice that argued for justice. She made me laugh, and she asked good questions. I will never stop missing the afternoon my husband and I spent in her living room for hours, talking about books; she even sent us away with some of hers. I will never stop missing her voice in Bible studies or the way she would sit back in her chair, eyes narrowed in contemplation — this was a woman who thought hard about what you said. Her place in the family of things was as a bricklayer for so many people, building the foundations of countless students and friends. I know I will never stop thinking of her when I hear the wild geese.

Extra Things

Little Ones

I am a big fan of being in control. Just truly a huge fan of planning and coordinating and timing things so they go off perfectly. I literally itch and squirm in discomfort when a well-planned thing doesn’t go well. This characteristic has served many employers well, but I swiftly burn right out.

I am equally annoyed by people who are laid back and who accept that they aren’t in control. Honestly, how dare they be so in touch with reality? Where have they shoved their childhood trauma?

I forgot to bring in a succulent from my deck before a cold spell hit, and I could see its dead remains from my living room window in November. Guilt and disappointment and a bit of anger danced around inside me. I dealt with all that quite brilliantly, in a way I love to do – I avoided it. Well, it is already dead so I will just not look at or think about that for a while.

March and Quarantine came a’courting, and so I found myself on the deck, cleaning up the crime scene, and three little starts from the succulent fell out of a safe little spot between the succulent’s pot, and some others. Three little leaves had tucked themselves into a warm, dry place, and sent out roots and new leaves.

Look at that. It’s like creation doesn’t even rely on me.

I have spent a lot of time uncovering the fact that the control freak in me is the result of a graceless Christianity in which many of us are still suffocating. You too may find yourself a bit uptight had you grown up with the overwhelming burdensome dread that anyone you did not share the Gospel with might go to Hell and so you too might also go to Hell. If Hell was one bad thought or one imperfect reaction away, you too may panic over a tiny mistake (see also: The Puritans). In How to Survive a Shipwreck, Jonathan Martin captures this Pentecostal pressure so wonderfully in a story about his utter breakdown at eight years old over failing to witness to a cable repairman. I laughed and cried at how closely I related. He then writes:

But that was the system I internalized, and that is how I always interpreted anything I thought God might be calling me to do. It wasn’t an invitation, but a threat. I grew up feeling sure God was holding a gun to my head, saying “do this or else.” Everything I did for God, even when I grew older, was still done out of a sense of duty and obligation. … When you are living in constant fear, there is no way you can choose to live out of your depths.

Many of us are desperately trying to live into two opposing truths: 1) God is all-powerful and 2) He depends on us to do everything, or else it all fails. That’s a paradox that breeds anxiety and shame, and there grace cannot root. Worst of all, you tirelessly encounter yourself failing (because to be God is — to all of humanity’s continued bewilderment — impossible) so then more anxiety and shame sprout up. The good seed is choked out.

In the summer of 2017, I was asked to help with a ministry at my church wherein emergency financial assistance is offered to community members in danger of having their utilities disconnected. This was part of a larger job, and in the earliest days, I found myself rattled by the interruptions this task caused to my well-planned days. In an especially exhausting moment, as I stood in a brightly-lit lobby with a person over-explaining their situation while a phone was ringing and things needed to be printed, I felt my temper flare because nothing was under my control and I could not do everything and please everyone. This person in front of me was a distraction from what I needed to do. God spoke up.

(A quick aside: I may attend a United Methodist church now, but I grew up a Pentecostal hillbilly*, and God doesn’t worry too much about talking to us because everyone thinks we are a little nutty anyway.)

So, I tell you with no self-consciousness that God spoke to me, and what he said was this: “Listen to my children.

Truly I say to you, I had not known what it meant to be rattled before that. Before that moment, I was still living in that paradox, desperately trying to know the formula to please God. Am I supposed to witness now? What do I say now? Why am I even here? I want the gold star. I do not want to mess this up. There are so many ways to mess this up. Why are there so many traps?

Shh. I’m inviting you in to just listen, God told me. Because they are mine.

In Luke’s account of the bleeding woman, I love that Jesus stops and looks for the person who touched him. I love in Matthew when the Canaanite woman argues with Jesus about crumbs and changes his mind. Paul wrote to those quarreling Corinthians, “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” If Jesus stops and looks and listens and loves, then I will too.

Listen to my children. In my time in that job, the fruit of laying aside my plans and accepting that invitation changed me. I understand much more about the injustice of the systems we’ve built. I understand that even as the president boasts to a Boy Scout camp a few miles away from you, a prophet in plain clothes all but defeated by poverty will wrap their hands around yours and speak right to your soul about what it means to truly trust Jesus. I understand that situation was not irony but the rebellious revolutionary truth of the Gospel — that this strange Jesus is Messiah, even while the culture is on its knees to counterfeits. I understand how alone so many people feel, how alone so many truly are. I understand what it means to shut up and get out of the way. Yes, there was often action to take, but the real holiness was just sitting with someone and listening. The holiness doesn’t depend on us, but boy, does it love for us to accept the dance. I’ve seen the risen Christ, and He’s right there in between two of his children sharing a moment of eternity together.

Because I am still here on earth breathing, I have not been healed of all my control and anxiety issues, but that moment and the ones that followed poured new ways of understanding the endless mystery of grace into my life. Even in that little whisper to me, God was saying what he has said since the beginning of time – these little ones are my beloved.

I dampened some soil and put those little succulent volunteers in a semi-sunny spot where their cells have continued to multiply. I look at them every day, and I listen.


*I borrowed “Pentecostal hillbilly” from Jonathan Martin’s book too.

Reminder.