The Myth of Human Separateness

The Spirit moves us together,
she dances around the edges.

An opening appears,
and she oozes into the space between us.

The Spirit fills the space with respect,
laughter, and comfort.

She dances joyfully,
overjoyed at our response to one another.

The Spirit smiles and nods,
bursting with joy.

“Aha!” she says, “I told you:
human separateness is a myth.”

 

I Was Oblivious

Closeup of a trail runners feet running on a gravel trail
Photo from Zooma Women’s Race Series.

I saw her up ahead. In her bright reflective pink-purple jacket she was hard to miss even in the early minutes of dawn. Of course, that’s the point. Runners want to be visible to traffic.

Like me, she ran by herself. As I was about ten feet away, she veered away from me on another trail, and picked up her pace.

This was not competition. This was caution. Solo runners, especially those who are women, need to be cautious in a way that those of us who are men do not. A recent Runners World survey revealed that 43% of women and only 4% of men have been targets of harassment mid-run. (See Running While Female.)

I confess it wasn’t until several women in my online running group shared their experiences of harassment that I considered the risks of the solo run. (Their conversation was in response to last summer’s murder of several women while running.) Whether in my rural community or the suburban and urban areas I often run, I have never personally experienced harassment or threatening behavior from others.

I simply had never thought about it.

Once the women in my runners’ group brought up the topic I paid attention. I noted the watchfulness when I encountered women on my runs. Running alone was not nearly as common among women as men. Group members talked about never running the same way twice and carrying self-protective devices. Many women lamented they no run less often because they feel unsafe running alone. Others described frightening encounters.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I taught college my women students were careful to call security or go with friends after night classes. The young male students brazenly marched into the dark without fear. That’s been awhile, though, and my own sense of security deprived me of appreciation for my fellow runners.

How had I been so oblivious to the experience of so many of my fellow runners? Now that I was aware, I noted the alert looks i got from women especially in more isolated areas. Maybe my big smiles were a little creepier than I imagined. In response, I began giving a wider berth as I would pass to assure others that I have no ill intent. I drew back the magnitude of my smiles, sometimes just nodding.

In an era when our politics validate lewd or worse behavior as locker room talk, those of us who feel safe running alone (or walking to our cars alone) have a responsibility. We must make it clear to our male peers that any talk or action that degrades and belittles others is unacceptable.

I still run alone but I hurt for those who cannot. I am awed at the  bravery of those, like the woman in the reflective pink-purple jacket, who run solo but must remain ever-vigilant because of the sins of my gender.

Clergy Couple’s Lament

screenshot-2016-12-03-09-40-21IF…

IF…you assume that the Spirit needs me here and you there for whatever inexplicable reasons…

THEN..

THEN…it behooves us to find joy in the journey, in the service of the One who loves us and brought you and I together.

ALAS…

ALAS…I struggle with finding the joy when the sun begins to set and you are not beside me for the evening meal and sleeping.

STILL…

STILL…IF…THEN… joy is necessary and is actually present when I look for it.

SIGH…

SIGH…just SIGH.

Love you.

Norm

On this All Saints Day, I am remembering Norm Ellington. Norm changed the trajectory of my faith and spiritual journey. Below is an excerpt from a paper I wrote about him for a seminary class seven years ago.

In the summer of 1967 my family moved two thousand miles from the white, middle class neighborhood, school, and church in Salem I had known for four-years. I recall asking my parents as we approached our new home, “Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”  I was about to have some of my first experiences with race during a turbulent time in this country in a city with deep racial rifts. I walked to a predominantly African American public school during the week and on Sundays attended a new Disciples of Christ church within walking distance of my family’s new home. It was at this church that I met Norm.

“Why are there so many black people in St. Louis?”

Norman Ellington was an African-American man to whom my younger brother and I gravitated before church and between Sunday School and worship.  Norm put up with our silly jokes, our brotherly rivalry, and our incessant questions and comments. Without becoming pedantic, Norm took advantage of teachable moments to mentor our understanding of Christianity in a broken world in which racial hostility and violence was never far from our doorstep. Living in an urban renewal, intentionally mixed-race, mixed-income rental community near some of the most dilapidated slums in St. Louis, I was faced at eight-years old with processing what was happening around me. Fortunately, I had Norm to help me do that processing.

I recall his patient explanations about what it meant to be black in late 1960s St. Louis and what it meant to be a Christian during those violent times. When I was being bullied daily by an African American classmate, being called “honky” and other epithets for whites, it was Norm who helped me perceive what was happening through a Christian lens. When my best friend’s African American father was shot and killed on the job by a mentally ill man, it was Norm who helped me to understand that Jay’s father had been doing God’s work striving to help poor blacks and whites find employment despite the risks to his personal safety which was created by society-wide racial tensions.

“I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty.”

[Norm] reminded me that Jesus was never afraid to go where those who were in need lived and struggled. When my mother was the victim of harsh language and hateful words from the Black Panthers, I listened as Norm counseled her with love and compassion while helping her to understand the deep pain that was a part of the black experience in the late 1960s.  In my interactions with Norm as well as those I overheard him have with family and other church members, I learned the importance of a Christian faith of action that does not shy away from the truth of racism and poverty. I learned that as someone born with light skin, I benefit from systemic racism.

As our church heeded the call of Christ to go where the “least of these” live Norm also helped me to see the Holy Spirit manifest in our work. For example, he helped me to understand the power of Christian love when the suspiciousness turned to joy on the face of the African American children I played with prior to our church’s movie night on a vacant lot. Norm explained to me that when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, that the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings. He helped me understand the importance of blacks and whites getting to know one another.

“…when whites showed up in this particular neighborhood, even though I only lived a few blocks away, …the experience was rarely positive for the poor, African-Americans who lived in the crumbling buildings.”

Norm was never my Sunday School teacher, my pastor, or my youth leader. He was my friend who, using Jesus as our reference point, helped me to interpret both my positive and negative experiences in such a way that racism spared me its harshest sting—internalized hatred of the other.

 

 

It’s What I Do. 

When one of our beloved flock are nearing death, we live in dread of the next phone call or text. That’s the way it is for clergy.

When the call comes, our carefully planned day or day-off drops to the bottom of the priority list. The dreaded communiquĂ© and our response disrupts schedules and family time. Yet, we don’t complain. This is the job. We respond in love without resentment. That’s how it is when you’re called by the divine. Though I don’t exactly find joy in this aspect of my work, I have a sense of satisfaction and peace in being with families.

I also feel a private sense of grief. Always.

My grief can be simple and straightforward: I feel sad for others. If it is someone with whom I’ve had a deep or longterm relationship my sadness can take awhile to process. Nonetheless, out of love I set my feelings aside to be God’s presence for the deceased’s family and friends. That’s the job. That’s the calling. It’s what I do.

Sometimes, however, the death triggers a personal emotion. That’s what happened recently. Both clergy, my wife and I minister 165-miles apart. We manage the distance well. I feel as called to my rural congregation as she does to the suburban hospital where she is chaplain. Still, I don’t like it.

Dealing with unwanted separation in my own marriage I am sensitive to the grief of departures and time apart. The death of a parishioner’s spouse is prone to trigger my own feelings. This can especially be true when an aspect of the couple reminds me of my own relationship.

***

When the text came recently, I was over a hundred miles away. When the text came recently, I didn’t question where and with whom I must be. This is the job. This is the calling. It is where I needed to be.

This time the triggered emotion, coupled as it was with a tragic death the week prior, and the too soon departure from my own wife, I found myself sobbing as I drove the freeway to be with the widow.

I thought about the grieving family. A family I love has been struggling for far too long. I sobbed and prayed for them. Without the drive, my emotions would have remained in check until the quiet of the evening or days later.

I didn’t just sob for the family, however. I sobbed for myself. My personal feelings had been triggered. This is the job. This is the calling. It is what I do in my alone time surrounding a death.

My own overly sensitive feelings about detaching from my wife cascaded down my face. I thought about the choices we make for our jobs, our God. I thought about quitting outright and becoming a househusband. I fantasized about living with my beloved full-time. This is what I do when we must part. These were familiar thoughts, not enough to cause sobbing.

And, so, I prayed for my own relationship. I did not pray for our circumstance to change. I know that, at least for now, this is the job. This is our calling.

I thought about our deaths with eyes open. One day, one of us will die and leave the other. The widow with whom I would soon sit, was not an aberration. This is the nature of life, death will come.

I thought about the depth of aloneness one of us will one day feel. I prayed that when the time comes, my wife should die first. I hate the constant separations of our present, dread going on alone after her death, but I do not want my beloved to have to feel that pain. I will gladly take it upon myself, I told the loving spirit that connects all of creation.

This is the marriage. This is a calling. This is love.

Running from Embarrassment

Running from Embarrassment
retired
Retired. Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

 

Costumed in a kelly green tracksuit with yellow stripes down each leg and arm, I left our tiny apartment for a run. I must’ve been a sight! I didn’t get into running consistently in college despite that green polyester jogging suit.

 

My feelings of conspicuousness coupled with the memories of public school gym classes led me to abandon running in a few weeks. I associated exercise with being targeted, taunted, and ridiculed.

Running was a punishment in junior high school.

In my thirties and forties I dabbled in running, never getting serious. Still, I couldn’t help myself in my pre-dawn walks, often shifting to short runs. Because no one could see me, I was free to move my body. Those adolescent feelings of negative self-image die hard. Today, the taunting of my poor athletic skills and my husky childhood body still lurk within my psyche.

In the last few years, as my running became frequent and regular, I’ve begun to identify as a runner. That identity is qualitatively different than previously.

My aging body is certainly not qualitatively more graceful or attractive. You will not see me on the cover of Runners World. I am, however, healthier and more comfortable in my own skin. Major surgery coupled with the natural aging process, has changed my mind and spirit. I care less about what others think.

I am healthier and happier because I run.

Re-starting this kind of intensive activity in your fifties can and did lead to a few injuries. I listened to my body. They were minor and I recovered well. As I set personal goals, I challenge myself but am respectful of my limits. Despite craving the daily endorphin fix, I’ve learned my body cannot handle running more often than every thirty-six to forty-eight hours.

I choose to learn from the experiences of others, but I focus on health and self-care rather than anything close to competition. Maybe that’s why I do not participate in group running events. Others say they are about personal challenge, not competition. I have no reason to mistrust other runners but for now races do not appeal to me.

Runs are physical and spiritual journeys that mirror life. Some days I meet goals and challenges. Other days I struggle and run slower or not as far as I’d hoped. Some days I just want to go home.

Running is embracing the imago dei within myself. Created in God’s image, I have nothing to be embarrassed about the limits and skills of my body. My mind, body, and spirit are all facets of who I am.

And so I run. I sweat too much, my fat jiggles with each stride, and maybe I look a sight! This is me, as beloved by the divine as the fittest athlete. But run I must because it heals past hurts, strengthens me in the present, and fortifies hope for the future.

I am runner, watch me go.

A Morning Pause

Divine Moment
Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

Make the bed.
“Should I change the sheets today?”
No time. Tomorrow.
Do the dishes.
Water the grass.
Shower.
Dress.
Deal with dog.
Eat. Don’t dawdle.
Ding. Ding. Reply to texts.
Teeth. Don’t forget to brush your teeth.
Floss, too.
“I’ve gotta start a load of clothes before I go!”

In the midst of my morning routine I found sabbath. As the laundry detergent slowly and intently flowed into the cup, I took a breath. My body relaxed and my blood flowed in rhythm to the steady, unhurried liquid as it flowed from bottle to tap to measuring cup.

In and out. Sigh. I am here in this now.

That’s when I knew who I am. That’s the moment when I felt the divine presence in my morning routine.

Amen.

 

Greater Than Fear & Annoyance

Greater Than Fear & Annoyance
ChPNaVRU0AAiDT9.jpg-large
Photo by Tim Graves. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/us/

I avoid her. I fear running into her at the post office or the grocery. She has a way of taking a chunk out of my spirit.

Just when you wanna hate people, though, they go and do something nice. Just when I’m ready to have nothing to do with someone, I become aware of their struggles and like the Grinch my heart grows three sizes.

In my small town there is a woman who feels I’m entitled to her opinion of my driving. In addition to my atrocious driving habits, I apparently pastor a not-Christian church. I need to know that, too. Apparently.

Emotionally it is easy to become annoyed with this woman. I don’t have any first hand understanding of her struggles. Nor has my personal driving instructor done something nice for me. However, I know she volunteers to do tedious work in our community.

People are complicated and messy. I’m sure she has challenges of which I’m unaware. Her behavior tells me that she does. Our “stuff” often spills over onto innocent people. As a local pastor, who won’t strike back,  I’m an easy target.

My faith tells me that we all hold the sacred within us. I can’t just write her off if I believe what I claim.When I remember this, I find my heart growing and softening. I’m more tolerant. I find ways to interact with her in love rather than mere tolerance.

I even find myself seeing the good within her. Love really is greater than fear and annoyance.