Tag Archives: beauty

Miscellany

So it’s been seven weeks since I returned from Spain and the Camino.

And make that almost seven weeks since my last fearful post on here about how to incorporate what I learned/experienced on the Camino into my life here in Chicago.

I’ve realized I don’t have to know what it looks like. I don’t have to know how the story ends. I don’t have to know how the pieces fit in the puzzle. I don’t have to have it all figured out.

When I was walking across the meseta in central Spain, wheat fields meandering towards the horizons on both sides as I crawled under an azure dome pocked by clouds that were few and far between, I didn’t need to know where I was staying that night. I didn’t need to know where I would sleep tomorrow. I would be ok. Everything’s gonna be alright

—–

There are days I am nigh overwhelmed by the brokenness in the world.  There are refugee crises, and sickness, and violence.  The weight is huge.  And I am reminded of it daily as I sit in the pain and fear of the boys and girls who I work with have fled violence, destruction, and death.  I sit in it now.  And it is heavy.

We kick at the darkness, and hope that one day it will bleed daylight…  But we keep kicking.  One starfish at a time.  And we keep jumping, even if we’re not entirely sure how deep the water will be…

https://bmiller.wordpress.com/2008/05/14/bleeding-daylight/

—–

And sometimes when the darkness draws in close, it doesn’t take all that much to drive it back.  Sushi and an old Rasputin.  Friend talks and laughter.  Music and poetry.  And reminders of truth and beauty from Richard Capon as he plays with language and metaphor, meaning and mystery:

Might it not be, then, that it is by bearing for love the uncertainty of what we are to do that we come closest to his (God’s) deepest will for us?  In our fuss to succeed, to get a good grade on the series of tests we think he has proposed, we miss the main point of the affair: that we already are the beloved.  We long ago wound God’s clock for good…

It is our thirst for success and our fear of the freedom which he wills for us that keep us the poor lovers we are.  If the cross teaches us anything, it should be that the cup doesn’t pass from us, and that agony, bloody sweat, and the pain of being forsaken on a dark afternoon are the true marks of having said, Thy Will Be Done.  He is no less lost in this affair than we are.  What really matters for us both, though, is not the lostness, not the doubt, not the fragile, mortgaged substance of our house – only the love as strong as death which has set us as a seal upon each other’s hearts.

This is me learning to show up.  This is me, embracing love.  This is me, realizing that its ok to give up on my quest for certainty, for answers, for control.  What you find in the process is life – and life to the full.  This is me embracing the questions.

It feels good to be back…

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Home?

My flight touched down in Chicago last night after almost 24 hours of traveling.  I am home now, close to six weeks after I left.  And while in one sense it is so good to be home – to have a hot shower for as long as I want, use a real towel, sleep in my own bed with clean sheets, walk the streets of my neighborhood in the cool morning light as I head to one of my coffee shops – in the other, it is terrifying.  I had six weeks away from the day to day – six weeks of self-discovery, of newness, of walking slowly, of inhabiting silence, of learning to listen to God, to my body, to others, to the world around me.  I had six weeks where I did not eat a single meal alone.  It was lovely.  Six weeks of talking to strangers and finding that we weren’t strangers at all, but family.  Six weeks of simplicity – of sharing – of community – of delight.

Joy

It has changed me.  I feel more free – more myself – less afraid – less isolated.  More who I want to be, more who I was made to be.  I return tired, but full to overflowing.

And the thing that gives me pause – that scares me more than anything – is that I don’t want to lose that.  Now begins the process of learning to walk the Camino here in Chicago.  Friends have told me this, and commented on it.  I have read that the true Camino begins once you arrive in Santiago, and realize that your entire life is a pilgrimage – and that what matters is not only the destination, but the process of arrival.

I remember returning back to college after spending four months in Nepal and India with WMF, and being terrified that I would slowly forget the lessons I had learned – the relationships I had made – the people I had met – the growth that had happened.  And I didn’t want that at all.  So I made changes to my life.

That process begins again today.  As I look back on this last year, much of it seems covered in fog.  I was existing, but not really living.  Isolating myself from those who loved me, seeking intimacy and relationship from books and TV and movies and fantasy and imagination…  So, time for changes.

I’m not sure yet what those changes will look like.  Simplicity.  Relationships.  Sabbath.  Community.  Slowness.  Grace.  Celebration.

Toast

But my goal for the Camino was to learn to hear God more clearly so that I might be more closely attuned to the things that really matter upon my return to “normal life.”  Now begins the hard work of continuing to walk when there aren’t necessarily yellow arrows spelling out your next destination.

Or maybe I just need to learn to pay a little closer attention to what’s around me…

Arrow

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Consolation

I am tired. And my feet hurt. A lot. A few blisters. A few deep aches in the muscles & bones. 180 km. 7 days of walking.

But those things fade away quickly when you’re seated around the dinner table sharing a meal with friends who you hadn’t met a week ago, laughing through the beauty of blended cultures & spilled out stories, love & laughter abounding. To have someone lift your blistered foot into their lap to help bandage it, the sharing of your last cashews, or simply walking in shared silence through Spanish cities & countryside… Beautiful signs of consolation today. And I am thankful.

20140704-051450-18890452.jpg

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Only Love

The last time I was at the Music Box theater was over a year ago, with Ryan.  It’s a fun theater which shows quirky fare.  Tonight they were screening several of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries.  The second one we watched was titled “Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.”

Over the forty-minute long film, we come to know Jack Hall, an 83-year-old World War 2 veteran who is serving a life sentence for murder. He has congestive heart failure, has been in the hospital wing for the past 10 years after multiple heart attacks, and is not doing well. We follow him around as he is wheeled out into the yard to visit with his friends, we follow him to worship services and doctor’s visits and eventually follow him into one of the two hospice rooms of the Iowa State Penitentiary.

It is a startling, intimate, humanizing look into the lives of several men who are incarcerated – and what it means to die with dignity in prison.

The most arresting moments we were invited into were the moments that Jack shared with his hospice care-givers – volunteers who spent 10-12 hours a day with him 5 days a week, in shifts so that he was never alone: bathing him, holding his hand, praying with him and for him, rubbing his back, shaving him, laughing and joking and simply being with him so that he would not die alone.

One of the volunteers was named Love – serving a life sentence for kidnapping. Love was with Jack as he faded into a coma, and became unresponsive. Love was with Jack as he stopped breathing.

And for someone who all too often tears up while listening to “This American Life,” I was gone.

Such a beautiful picture of what reconciliation can look like – life transformed and made new…  Even the murderers and kidnappers and the embezzlers and the gossips and the liars and the racists and the selfish and the greedy and the prideful – Jack, and Love, and you, and me…

—–

(for more on “Prison Terminal,” check out this piece on “Fresh Air.”)

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Problems solved or mysteries lived

I never thought I would see Lenny Kravitz cry on stage. But as the show went on, he just seemed to get more and more frustrated. I felt a little bad for the guy, to be honest. I mean, on the one hand, he’s Lenny Kravitz. But on the other, no matter how many times you repeat your song lyrics and ask the crowd to sing along, it’s not gonna change the fact that the crowd of 300,000 people on the Copacabana beach were primarily Portuguese speakers, and don’t understand what you’re saying, and even though they were super excited to be there, weren’t really able to sing along…

Of course, the five english speakers I was tagging along with didn’t really know the lyrics either – we were just there cause…  I mean, c’mon, how often do you get to go see a free Lenny Kravitz concert on the beach in Rio?

I was reminded of this ridiculous scenario the other night as I was driving home from my internship out in the suburbs, listening to a podcast of Walter Brueggeman teaching an Old Testament Survey workshop. As he closed out a portion of his talk, he said:

“For the most part, the wisdom teachers are problem solvers. But they knew that underneath the problems are mysteries to be lived with.

One of the problems with an electronic culture is that everything turns into a problem to be solved.

Creation is a mystery to be lived with, and not a problem to be solved…”

I turned it off to think about his words for a moment in silence, but right then Lenny Kravitz began blaring through the radio, and I was back on that beach in Rio.

As the two threads wove together in my mind, I smiled at the beauty and absurdity of it: Brueggemann and Kravitz combining to remind me of truth, of experience, of lived hope, of a time when I was learning to give up expecting God to solve my problems, or the problems of the people I cared about, and embrace the mystery of faith and trust and dialogue and honesty and anger and questions and relationship with God in all its wonder and complexity.

—–

The time around the concert was tumultuous. I had recently moved into the favelas, and was confronted on an almost daily basis with police brutality, gun-fights around the corner between traffickers and cops, friends dying of drug overdoses or drug-deals gone bad, systemic oppression and hopelessness and despair. I saw lots of problems that needed to be fixed.

But God wasn’t doing it. At least not the ways that I wanted it to happen. The violence continued. Bullets flew. People died. Hope died.

And yet…

Mystery. Beauty. Death was present. But even as death seemed to reign, there were signs of resurrection, of new life, of people transformed and choices made new, forgiveness opening doors and hearts, people risking love even in the darkness. This was the Kingdom at work.

This tension goes back to the disciples. I think of them asking Jesus, “Lord, are you now going to restore the Kingdom of Israel?” They wanted flash. They wanted bang. They wanted power. They wanted solutions. They wanted the Kingdom to come in now – powerful and majestic and impossible to miss. They wanted torture to stop, chemical and nuclear weapons destroyed, the oppressors ousted, the vision of Isaiah brought to earth where every one could sit and eat under their own fig tree, “and no one would make them afraid,” and freedom and liberty and justice for all.

And against that stands the path of Jesus.

“Yes, that will happen, but not in the way you want it to happen.
Yes, I will make all things new, but it will be like a slowly growing tree instead of an avalanche of light.
Yes, there is hope.
Now go.
Forgive.
Serve.
Give.
Love.”

That is the mystery…

And how do we live that?

“Now if I’d seen him, really there, really alive, it’d be in me like a fever. If I thought there was some god who really did care two hoots about people, who watched ‘em like a father and cared for ‘em like a mother…well, you wouldn’t catch me sayin’ things like ‘there are two sides to every question’ and ‘we must respect other people’s beliefs.’ You wouldn’t find me just being gen’rally nice in the hope that it’d all turn out right in the end, not if that flame was burning in me like an unforgiving sword. And I did say burnin’, Mister Oats, ‘cos that’s what it’d be. You say that you people don’t burn folk and sacrifice people anymore, but that’s what true faith would mena, y’see? Sacrificin’ your own life, one day at a time, to the flame, declaring’ the truth of it, workin’ for it, breathin’ the soul of it. That’s religion. Anything else is just…is just bein’ nice. And a way of keepin’ in touch with the neighbors.”

She relaxed slightly, and went on in a quieter voice: “Anyway, that’s what I’d be, if I really believed. And I don’t think that’s fashionable right now, ‘cos it seems that if you sees evil now you have to wring your hands and say ‘oh deary me, we must debate this.’ That my two penn’orth, Mister Oats. You be happy to let things lie. Don’t chase faith, ‘cos you’ll never catch it.” She added, almost as an aside, “But, perhaps, you can live faithfully.”

~ Granny Weatherwax, in Carpe Jugulumby Terry Pratchett

May you live today faithfully…

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The Healing Power of Kenny Loggins: (August and Remembering, vol. 2)

That August Sunday morning when my mom went into a coma from which she would never wake up, Seth and Jeremy drove out from Chicago to spend the day with me.  Two teenagers who saw their friend and his family was hurting, so they did something.  Nothing profound happened – I think we went out and watched a movie at the theater and talked and joked and made bad puns in the way adolescents do, grasping for honesty and connection in the midst of insecurity and uncertainty and a world that has seems to have very few shades of gray.  I loved them for coming out, and reminding me that I was not alone.

One year later, I found myself driving down to Arkansas to visit Seth and his family.  His sister Miriam had just given birth to a baby boy, and there were massive complications.  I didn’t really understand what had happened, but she was close to death, and the whole family was gathered there, reeling from the pain of having this joyful moment of hope and new life be transformed into despair, tears, mourning, death.  I didn’t know what to do, but my friend was hurting, and I just wanted to remind him that he wasn’t alone.

A few weeks later, Jeremy, Michael and I found ourselves driving from Chicago down to Charlotte, North Carolina in my little gray Honda Civic for Miriam’s funeral.  Honestly, much of that trip was a blur.  Death had once again struck close to home – this time with someone barely a few years older than we were.  There was a shell-shocked quality to our journey.  I was really starting to dislike the month of August.  We were going to another funeral.  At least we weren’t going there alone.

We drove through the night.  After all, poor college kids (much less missionary kids) wouldn’t stay at a hotel.  We were climbing over the Smokies as dawn approached, Michael and Jer asleep in the back, me at the wheel alone with my thoughts, music playing softly through the scratchy radio stations that would fade in and out, climbing, climbing on winding roads that reminded me vaguely of trips to the Peruvian highlands.  And in that moment of silence, I remember feeling the darkness around us as a tangible thing.  It obscured, threatened to swallow, and though it could be chased away by my little Honda’s headlamps for a few moments, it always lurked just in the corner of vision waiting to pounce.  It was death, and it was out there.  It would not leave me alone.

But…

Just as the darkness threatened to swallow us completely, I realized that this was not the end.  The sky started to lighten, slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly.  It wasn’t light – not yet.  It was just “not-as-dark.”  But that was enough.

I probably prayed.  I probably was silent.  I do remember straining my eyes, trying to catch one more glimpse of the sky as the darkness dissipated and was slowly, every so slowly, replaced with shining, shimmering, resplendent light.  I was in awe.  I was full of joy.  I felt that death had tried once more to snuff out hope, but light and life were not done.  They would have the last word.  Life.

There was this moment of convergence where we reached the high point in the pass and began our descent just as the sun broke over the horizon in pinks and golds and hues that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Thomas Kinkade painting.  The winding road lay out before us, cutting over and through golden valleys drenched with clouds that towered above and below us, parts of the mountainside shimmering in and out of visibility as the clouds refracted the sun into rainbows and scintillating light shows.  It felt like I was flying, piloting my little car through banks of clouds and the oceans of light all around.  I had a hard time keeping my foot from crashing to the floor, coaxing every last bit of speed out of my little Honda – after all, we were trying to arrive in one piece…  But the glorious reminders of beauty and life and not being alone were almost overwhelming.

At that moment, I realized that I had only turned down the radio – it wasn’t completely off.  Faintly, almost too quiet to be heard, there was an epic guitar riff building…  So I did what any child of the 80’s would do when confronted with Kenny Loggins’ masterpiece “Highway to the Danger Zone.”  I cried out (waking up Jer and Michael) “I feel the NEED, the NEED for SPEED!”, turned it up to 11, and let the music carry us home.

I carried that moment for a long time as a talisman.  When things got too dark, too heavy, too hard, I could remember that beauty, that joy, that life that flowed through me and creation and Kenny Loggins, and be thankful to be alive, and be thankful that even in the midst of the dark and winding roads, nothing is beyond redemption…  Even Kenny Loggins and the “Danger Zone.”

Thanks Kenny.

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Aftershocks: (August and Remembering, vol. 1)

August approaches.  It’s funny – the month of August is usually my cue for reflection.  I’ll stop, try and take some space to look back into the past, remember where I’ve come from, the people who have touched my life, reevaluate where I’m headed, and generally try to slow down and remember.  I love this habit, but the reason that it happens during August is because of the great (almost seismic?) shifts that have happened in this month over the course of my life.

10 years ago I stepped off a plane in Rio de Janeiro, a little confused, home-sick, lost, and overwhelmed, as well as excited, full of anticipation and eager expectation that good things would happen.  One of the things that I didn’t expect was Jeferson.  I’ve shared about him before – snippets of his life and death.  [I think it’s important to remember (and sometimes impossible to forget) that this story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending.]  If he were alive today, we’d be getting ready to celebrate his 26th birthday.  He’d probably have kids.  

(It’s the might-have-beens that will eat away at your soul…)

Some of you don’t know about Jeferson.  I’m sorry.  He was one of my first friends in Brazil.  A small word-picture of him:  picture a 14-year old kid from one of the rougher favelas with a smile and laugh that drew you in and made you feel as if you were sharing a joke that was on the whole world, a zest for life, a deep curiosity about other ways of life, a sense of humor that loved the absurd and was always looking for something to laugh about (or at), a softness and compassion that years on the street hadn’t managed to deaden, and so much potential for leadership that it made your teeth hurt.  He was by no means unreal – he had a bit of a temper, and made too many poor decisions, and would all too often be high out of his mind – whether out of boredom, or addiction, or just a way to deal with the immense amounts of pain and brokenness and heaviness that was his life day in and day out, or some combination of the three.  But he was deeply, authentically alive, and he was my friend, and he was someone whom God loved, and I loved, and who loved us in return.

There was his voice yelling across the praça when we would arrive, yelling out our names and running to meet us – echoes of the Father running to greet the prodigal son.  He would sing loud and hard, loved to eat spaghetti and pizza, and spent a couple of weeks living with us as we attempted to provide a safe place for him get his life together and off the streets.  He began to teach me what it meant to parent a child – the mix of love and anxiety, the desire to control and force them to make good decisions balancing out the necessity for freedom, autonomy, and the reality that those you love will make their own decisions for good or for ill, leavened with a healthy dollop of hope and apprehension.

That time didn’t stick – he left our home and was back on the streets shortly thereafter.  And the time after that when he went home to live with an older sister who was in over her head in the drug trade didn’t stick either.  And then he was in prison for theft, was gone for a few months, and came back a little wiser, a little more guarded, a little harder…  Yet in the midst of this, flashes of hope would glimmer.  A request for prayer – a tear and a whispered confession and a sincere effort to change and make good decisions – caring for younger kids on the cold wet sidewalks of Rio – a sense of hope – murmured prayers in the dark on the sidewalks and under streetlights.

This went on for two years – two years of shared meals, of spontaneous encounters on the streets and in the slums, on the beaches and in the churches, sandwiches and hot chocolate while huddled under an overhang from the winter rains, singing songs of hope and life and joy and a reality that must have seemed unimaginable at times.  Two years of growth, of failure, of prayers, of heartache, of dancing and beauty and life, of pouring myself into him, and being poured into in return.  Two years of slow movement, of incremental changes, of three steps forward and two steps back.

Two years…

—–

I remember sitting in my apartment doing something stupid and pointless on the internet when I heard someone knocking on my door.  It was Rich, and he had bad news.  “Jeferson’s dead.”  And things came crumbling down…

Details were fuzzy, yet as they slowly crystallized became more and more horrific – betrayal, ambush, humiliation, torture, murder…  par for the course in our broken world, so full of death, yet real to me in a new and powerful way.  It’s a story that has taken place too many times.  It’s a story that happens daily, sometimes on a much bigger scale – Syria, Egypt, DRC, Colombia, Haiti, Brazil…  It’s a story that continue to play itself out here in Chicago today in my very own backyard.  It’s a reality that I find all too easy to forget.

—–

I don’t want to forget.  I can’t really.  I can pretend, I can distract myself with shiny toys and fun games, but YouTube videos and books won’t bring resolution and a sense of closure.  There is work to be done.  Reconciliation.  Justice.  Forgiveness.  Hope.  Safety.  All things new…

I think of friends who are still involved – still kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight – in Kolkata, Katmandu, El Alto, Bangkok, LA, Jacksonville, Antakya, Jerusalem, Port-au-Prince, Chicago – and I am thankful.  For their life.  For their example.  For their courage.

—–

My only response that can hope to make sense of this is trust.  Not a trust that pretends there is no doubt.  Trust in the midst of doubt.  Not a faith that is blind to uncertainty.  Faith working through uncertainty.  Asking questions, pushing, not settling for the status quo, but in the midst of that holding on to the vision of all things new that gives us hope.  I recognize that this is a choice, but it is a choice that I choose to make.  And maybe that’s where grace comes in – that I choose to hope, that I choose to look for God, that I choose to try and find beauty, that I choose to act and not despair, that I choose to love and not wall myself off from others, from life, from the pain and the joy.

—–

This spring I finished reading Aftershock by Kent Annan – a slim book written shortly after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, processing what it means to hold honestly to faith while engaging the reality of our world in a clear-eyed & hope-filled way.

In it, I came across this:

An Annotated Wish List
For Changes In/By God

(Kent Annan – AfterShock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken)

  1. Rather than a God of occasional disaster-rescue miracles, I want a God whose miracles prevent the disasters in the first place.
  2. Rather than a God who needed to retreat in order to leave room for human freedom and love, I want a God who finds a
    less painful way to make freedom and love work.
  3. Rather than a system set up so that those who suffer most are also the most vulnerable (usually those who are poor), I want the wealthy to be the most vulnerable.  An increase in money beyond one’s necessity could inhibit the body’s production of antibodies.
  4. Rather than children being at the mercy of nature and of other people, I want no one to die or be physically or emotionally traumatized before turning twelve years old.  Nobody.  And the only ones who die between thirteen and eighteen should be those whose decisions represent a clear and present danger to others.
  5. For every unethical action, there should be an equal and opposite reaction – immediately.  If you inflict suffering, you should immediately suffer accordingly.
  6. I want a small indicator button, like a low-battery light, on the prominent C7 vertebrae that protrudes slightly on the cervical spine at the base of the neck between the shoulders.  A gentle red light would glow forty-eight hours before death is irreversible, when the downward spiral toward unconsciousness or pain has won.  It would indicate time for final goodbyes with loved ones and that a final welcome from God is imminent: “You’re released from this life.  Welcome into the next one.”

Kent Annan works in Haiti.  He is the author of a couple of books.  They are all highly recommended.  As is the way he continues to kick at the darkness…

 

Keep kicking at the darkness friends…  until it bleeds daylight…

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