How to save a life

loveoneanother My heart is heavy for Paris and Beirut today. It has been heavy for Syria and her refugees for a long time. I want to drop everything and fly to Germany and the refugee camps and help people, somehow, I don’t know how. I want to do something. Of course, as I told my friend the other day, I would be next to useless there. I would be overwhelmed and I would have a migraine all the time and just need to lie down. In fact, I did drop everything, sixteen years ago when I was in seminary, and flew to Croatia to help the seminary students who were working with refugees from the Bosnian War. But when I got there, it turned out the students had all left for the summer. I spent a month doing paperwork and cleaning for the seminary instead. I also went to Turkey that summer after the earthquake (though that was unplanned), and five years later to Morocco to try to help out some midwives there who were saving premature babies. I was pretty much useless in both those places, though it was fascinating and humbling to see how people responded to the presence of an American. The Turks, bleeding and shaking in makeshift tents next to the rubble of their homes thanked me for being there, as if America itself had come to their aid. But I had no medical knowledge, no training, nothing really to offer them.

So going over there, to Europe or the Middle East, is not really how I personally can best help. But I believe I can, and each of you reading this can, too. I believe that there are people all around us who have the potential for great works of love or great acts of destruction, and our presence in their lives could make the difference in which of these they choose. And I believe that it’s not necessarily great acts of altruism that make that difference, but the small things we do each day, how we choose to look upon people and respond to them, whether we choose to respond to anger with anger, or to do the hardest thing and offer gentleness in exchange.

What if we looked at every person who gave us an angry look, who cut us off in traffic, who interrupted us in a meeting, who spread rumors about us in the office, as a potential mass shooter, as a potential suicide bomber? And what if our gentle response to their anger made them stop and reconsider? What if the person who honked and yelled at me yesterday because I wasn’t pulling out of the parking space they were waiting for was on the brink of snapping, but if I smiled and rolled down my window and looked him in the eye I could have given him another day of peace, another chance to find hope? Instead, I got stubborn and passive-aggressive, and took another minute to adjust the heat and the radio settings before I pulled out. And even then, driving away, I felt anger washing over me. I wished I had stayed longer, I wished I had turned off the car and kept him waiting, claiming my space and my rights, even though the kids were hungry and tired and needed to get home for lunch and a nap. Driving away, I suddenly felt so angry and such a sense of injustice that tears came to my eyes.

Where does anger like that come from? It usually happens to me in the car. People are just awful to each other in their cars here in Boston. I think it is because we can’t really see each other. We don’t look each other in the eye, we just see a two thousand pound metal vehicle. We don’t have the subtlety of expression, we can’t tell if the other person looks sad or scared, all we have are blinkers and horns to try to communicate our opinions and feelings. We don’t know that the person who just cut us off was up all night with a sick toddler and had to go to a job they hate even though they are also sick. We don’t know that the person tailgating us is getting old and having trouble telling how close she is. All our empathy and compassion is reduced to a single feeling of right and wrong, justice and injustice, getting our way and making sure the other person knows it. I am such a kind person, usually, when I am face to face with people. At least, I remember to try. But in the car it is different.

And so I try to remember, and to love people with my driving. To smile and wave and say thank you when people let me go, even though I know they can’t hear me. To let people go in front of me, even if I technically have the right of way.  That’s the other thing about driving in Boston — the city wasn’t designed by architects, it evolved haphazardly and inconsistently. So while in other cities there is some kind of structure and order, and you turn when the lights tell you to turn, in Boston there are many places where it’s just never your turn to go. If we didn’t stop and let each other go, we’d never get anywhere. And generally you know when you are waiting to turn that someone, eventually, will notice you and let you out. We depend on it, or none of us would ever get anywhere. People are kind to each other here, too.

One morning this past June the kids I nanny hadn’t been napping well but they all fell asleep in the car, so I decided to just drive around for an hour to give them a solid rest. They live near an intersection on the border of Roslindale and West Roxbury, and I drove through that intersection about three or four times in that hour, looping around to find places to drive without getting too far from home in case they woke up. There were a lot of police cars and ambulances there, and I wondered what had happened. It wasn’t until I got home from work that evening and turned on the news that I saw that a potential terrorist had been shot and killed there by the police. It was just fifty yards or so from where the kids and I had passed several times that morning. Half a mile from their house. About a mile from mine.

There is not much I can do right now for the Syrian refugees, shivering in tents on concrete floors as the cold weather sets in. There’s not much I can do for the families of the victims of the shootings in Paris and Beirut. But I can smile and wave and let people go ahead of me in traffic. I can humanize the driver in the car that cut me off and extend compassion to him or her. And I can get out of my car, and off of the internet — another closed-in vehicle that keeps me from really seeing the person I am interacting with — and actually get out into the city and interact with people. I can’t help the children drowning in the Mediterranean, but I signed up to lead a playgroup at a local homeless shelter. I can remember that everyone I meet is fighting a great battle, and give them a moment of refreshment and rest, a kind word in a world that has maybe been cruel to them. I can remember that we have no choice, that we must love one another or die.

lamplighthouseladder

Love,
Jessica

 

 

Four invitations

Wildflower bouquetMy mind likes to find connections, and to organize things in little groups. I’m the person who pours her M&Ms on the table and sorts them according to color (and then eats them methodically so there are always the same number of each color). So when someone recently shared the Rumi poem below my mind made a neat little bouquet with that poem, Shel Silverstein’s poem-preface to Where The Sidewalk Ends, and five paragraphs that never fail to make me cry from Richard Foster’s preface to his book Prayer. Three invitations. They go nicely together, I think.

Come. Come in. You are welcome to come in.

The fourth invitation, which I’ll share first, is to my new Ten Thousand Places Facebook page. Please head over and “like” it — pull up a chair, and make yourself at home! I’ll post links to new blog posts there, and also shorter thoughts and quotes. I’d love it to be a place that embodies, just a little bit, the spirit of each of the three invitations below. And maybe it can be something of a community, as well. I think you guys would like each other.

Here’s my little bouquet of wildflower-invitations. You might want to put it in water when you get home. If you don’t have a vase, a mason jar or jelly jar will do just as nicely.

***

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again , come , come.

~Rumi

***

If you are a dreamer come in,
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar,
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer…
If you’re a pretender come sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!

~Shel Silverstein

***

Perhaps you have never prayed before except in except in anguish or terror. It may be that the only time the Divine Name has been on your lips has been in angry expletives. Never mind. I am here to tell you that the Father’s heart is open wide — you are welcome to come in.

Perhaps you do not believe in prayer. You may have tried to pray and were profoundly disappointed…and disillusioned. You seem to have little faith, or none. It does not matter. The Father’s heart is open wide — you are welcome to come in.

Perhaps you are bruised and broken by the pressures of life. Others have wronged you, and you feel scarred for life. You have old, painful memories that have never been healed. You avoid prayer because you feel too distant, too unworthy, too defiled. Do not despair. The Father’s heart is open wide — you are welcome to come in.

Perhaps you have prayed for many years, but the words have grown brittle and cold. Little ever happens anymore. God seems remote and inaccessible. Listen to me. The Father’s heart is open wide — you are welcome to come in.

Perhaps prayer is the delight of your life. You have lived in the divine milieu for a long time and can attest to its goodness. But you long for more: more power, more love, more of God in your life. Believe me. The Father’s heart is open wide — you too are welcome to come higher up and deeper in.

~Richard Foster

***

Come. Come in. You are welcome to come in.

Love,Jessica

He suffers with us

 

When I first started this blog back in the summer of 2007 I was about to fall into one of the darkest times of my life. As I look back at the first several posts, I can see I was still fighting it, still trying to find cheerfulness around me and write about it, even though inside I felt a growing desolation and despair. I had created a category that I called “Wrestling the Tigers” to describe my struggle with migraines, something that I had been dealing with since I was a kid. But a deep depression was settling in as well, and I soon started writing about that under the tigers category. The migraines were to worsen, the depression become debilitating, things in the community get progressively harder, my job as a minister to international students fall apart, and my felt-relationship with God disappear. But in 2007 and 2008 I was still fighting it. I was still trying to find a way to figure out work, to talk through things at the community, to medicate the migraines and the depression, and to re-find the connection I’d had with God.

By the end of 2008 things were falling apart. I moved from one house in the community to another, to try to relieve the strain of one of the difficult relationships, but that triggered more stress and difficulties. I had a scary reaction to a migraine medication and had to miss a work retreat, and when I was scolded and threatened with being put on probation because of it, I finally realized that I was not going to be able to make the job work, and I quit. I tried to rally and choose another career — applied to nursing schools and took a statistics class as a prerequisite. But after a few weeks of struggling to take the two trains to my class every week I realized that going back to school wasn’t feasible. I took a full time nanny job but had to quit after three weeks because I felt so sick. In 2009 I finally gave into the depression and migraines, and collapsed into bed. I stayed there for ten months, getting up only once or twice a day to go downstairs for coffee or food. I hardly left the house or had social interactions beyond a few strained words with my housemates and community-mates. It was next to impossible to chat about normal things when I was in so much pain, both physical and mental, and people soon grew tired of hearing me talk about how bad I was feeling. I don’t blame them. I was sick and tired of talking about it, too. It was easier to be alone.

The worst part about that time, though, was feeling like I’d lost all the ways of connecting with God that used to be so precious to me. Reading the Bible had been as much a part of my day as my morning coffee, but now the words were empty of the power and beauty they used to hold. But it was worse than that: I would read the empty words and remember how much they used to mean, and feel that loss so intensely that I couldn’t bear it. It was too hard. Sometimes I read them anyway, and just cried. Prayer was hard, too. I used to find such solace in prayer, pouring out my heart to my best friend and giving my life to him daily. But now I just felt emptiness. All I could feel was the depression and the constant pain of the migraines.

IMG_0347Then, one day on a whim, I bought a little crucifix online. I was raised in the Protestant tradition and remember being told that Catholic theology was wrong because they kept Jesus on the cross, whereas Protestant crosses were empty, representing the resurrection. When the package came, and I took out the little plastic Jesus it seemed so strange — a little Jesus doll when what I wanted was the real man, present in my heart, mind, and spirit, as he used to be. But one day, when the pain was at its worst, I placed my fingers on the nails in his hands, studied his face and his body, and wept with understanding: Jesus was in pain, too. He was suffering, too. I might not understand why it was happening to me, or why he wouldn’t answer my prayers to take it away, but now I knew that He was in it with me. For the days and months to come I lay in bed, clutching the crucifix to me and crying. Here’s what I wrote one night:

This did not go at all as planned, if I ever had a plan.  It had something to do with impressing everybody, but doing it without appearing to, effortlessly, the way I tell jokes,without smiling, looking away afterwards, leaving people to laugh or not, too cool to acknowledge my own cleverness.

But I was broken out of my intellect, my intention, my talent by the brokenness of my body, and though I wanted to relate to Christ in his witty repartee, his compassion, his healing, I now relate most to his twisted form on the cross, eyes shut in pain, not yet dead, not yet resurrected, not yet ascended. My Lord, the suffering, naked, four inch plastic form on the eight inch wooden cross.

I am not making a theology out of this.  Far be it from me. I am telling you what I do not know, not what I know. I am in pain all the time. I am dizzy, nauseous, exhausted, and this is before the side effects from the medications kick in.

Jesus’ features are not twisted in agony. If you didn’t know better you might almost think he looked peaceful. But I think that I recognize the movement inward that a long-suffering spirit makes. It is close to meditation. You have less to do with the world, with what is going on around you. Physical and emotional sensation take over and then, somehow, you sink below that, to a place deeper than that.

The contemplatives teach that at our very center the Spirit is constantly praying; that our act of prayer consists of joining in awareness with that ongoing prayer.  This is the only kind of prayer I can hope for, now.

I place a finger on each nail and press the wooden cross to my heart, the broken body of Christ against my own.

i-came-here-to-kneel

Taken from my bed — my home for many months — a ray of sunlight makes its way in and I reach through it to the cross.

The dark time lasted for six years, all told. Those two years, from the end of 2007 to the end of 2009 were the worst of it; after that I found a better (for me) migraine doctor and better meds, was able to start working a little bit and exercising, and learned what I needed to do to support my mental health. I still have migraines — almost every day, in fact — but they’re not as bad, and I know how to manage them. The depression has gotten slowly but continually better — these days it only visits occasionally, and I know what to do: Slow down, breath, meditate, do yoga and centering prayer. The spiritual stuff took the longest, though. I’ve written about that elsewhere, and I’m writing more. But for today I wanted to share this post about what the crucifix meant to me in that dark time, in case it might be helpful for someone who is in the darkness now. I don’t know why your prayers for healing have not been answered, or if the answer is, “no” or “not yet.” But I know the God that loves you is with you, and knows how you feel. He suffers with you, as he suffered with me back them. You are not alone.