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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Mystery of Prayer

I'm going to let you in on something. 

Prayer is a complete mystery to me. 

I've studied it, I've read books on it, I've read blogs on it, I've met with different pastors about it, I've asked a million questions about it. I've practiced structured prayer, I've practiced silent prayer, I've practiced jumbled prayer, I've done lists and days and notecards. The more I learn, the less I know. Prayer is difficult and weird. 

There came a time of my life when I just got tired. When I felt like prayer wasn't doing what it was supposed to do. There was crisis, there was prayer, there was still crisis, and prayer felt useless. It made it all the more confusing. I am a logical person, but I couldn't figure it out. I wanted to know how it worked, but there was just no knowing. 

I grew tired of all the need. I grew tired of people asking for prayer and me not really knowing how to help them. I grew exhausted of all the crisis and suffering - was prayer really the only way to help? What was prayer really doing for these people? How much prayer was enough? 

So, I packed up prayer and I put it in a box and I stuffed it away. 

I've recently started to open it up again. 

Because the months that I spent prayer-less or absently acknowledging something, those months were some of the hardest of my life. I lived lost, I lived by pride, I lived confused, I lived tethered to my emotions. And only looking back now can I see that the way I was living was in direct correlation to my prayer life. Maybe I had misunderstood prayer all along. Maybe prayer works far deeper and bigger and wider than I even realized. Maybe prayer was more about where I was centering myself, who I was coming back to, what I was dependent on. Maybe it was more about the presence of God than I anticipated. 

The one thing I heard over and over again in those months was that prayer is not an option. We cannot be fickle or negotiable about the role of prayer. It is a priority, and it is by this that we must live. Prayer is the root of faith. I heard it and read it over and over again. In my friend's blogs, my friend's sermons on Sunday mornings, my Church History textbook. Prayer is the way that we operate. Prayer is our guide, prayer keeps us centered, prayer keeps us ever aware of the presence of God.

And I don't think I ever doubted the importance of prayer, I just wasn't sure how to do this really important thing. But those words repeated to me over and over again. It filled my heart and refreshed my mind. This must be the characteristic of the Church. We must be people of prayer. That began to inspire me.

And as ministry life got crazier and I felt the weight more than I've had before, I realized that this weight wasn't meant for me to carry alone. Yes, I have human people here who help me, but I began to fully see there were greater Hands meant to help shoulder the burden with me. And the way to do that was through prayer. It was lighter to turn to God, even when it was jumbled and I wasn't sure what I was saying, or I was awkwardly throwing words up to God in desperation, not quite sure what was falling or what was sticking or how this whole thing even worked. He has a way of doing that. I think that's the true beauty of it. 

I keep a conversation in the back of my mind often. I met with a friend a little while ago (who told me once that "pastors need pastors" and I nearly melt with grace every time I think about it) and he told me a story of when he was called on for prayer in a time of tragedy and death. He said he had the same thought, same wrestling, the impact of the sadness was almost overwhelming. What did that time of prayer really do? And the man he was with said, We pray until God reveals otherwise.  

We pray until we don't. 

That's it. Prayer will always be a puzzle. I think it's meant to be a puzzle. But God has called us to a life of prayer. And I am committed to it. There are the days when I think about the state of a dark and divided world and my empathic instinct feels crushed. But I am learning to turn towards prayer, an intimacy with God, because that truly is the only way. The awareness of his presence is the unveiling of Emmanuel. 

He is with us. Of that I am certain.

Let's pray on. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Joy of Learning with Friends

I made myself a vow when I started seminary (the second time around) that this whole journey would be about me learning things new. New perspectives, new thoughts, new things I had never thought before. About becoming a better pastor, a better follower of Christ so that in turn, others may become better followers of Christ. A fuller and freer me. And I have found (in almost a sweet, rough tangle) that the more I learn, the less I know. And the fuller and freer me has not come without struggle. 

As I walked away from my last semester class today, I recognized the gift that this semester brought more than any of my other semesters had. It brought the gift of friendship. I met classmates who were likeminded and who shared such incredibly wise insights. I took notes on what my classmates shared more than anything. I was so encouraged by their quest to know God more fully and their grappling to understand more fully this life we live as Christians. I walked away each class so inspired by their pursuit (Emily and Frank, if you're reading this, this one's for you!). 

Once Emily said, I desire for my emotional response to be tethered to knowing who God is. Then I knew she was a winner.

Tonight we processed, the three of us during group discussion time, how sometimes we can look back at history, especially the time of Christ, with rose-colored glasses. My Church History professor is always telling our class this, that we can often look back at things in the past with the knowledge we have now. And we can often think seriously people, get yourselves together, because we can see now what they couldn't see then. Because they were living it! But that's not fair. We can't look back with our perspective now, or with our lens now. Too often I have rolled my eyes at the disciples or sighed at how long it took them to grasp that the King was going to take on a different role than they first imagined. How naive of me. 

Because Jesus really changed everything. I mean, to the core, everything. His people were waiting for the Messiah, the King, to overthrow and to dominate. But Christ came to do something so completely different and far grander. How confusing that must have been, Emily, Frank, and I dialogued, but how hopeful it must have been when they discovered that the Kingdom was much greater than they ever could have imagined. 

And then, all semester, Emily talked about family. So much of her perspective is this perspective of family; her words and thoughts were saturated with it. This is the core of our identity, our very DNA. It is our very fabric to be like God, and instead of stressing or worrying or living rigid lives, God tells us to partner with him. Yes. He has reordered our priorities and our abilities, which should make us so very hopeful. And when God talks about a hope and a future, that is for you. This is how God IS towards YOU. This is who you are, this is where you belong. We are a family. Be the family. Doesn't that make you just want to jump up and be free!?

I shared tonight how much I resonate with Peter; how his story reminds me of me. How he walked with Jesus for years, but never really understood what was going on. He was like the Andy Dwyer of the Gospels, stumbling and bumbling around. Telling Jesus he wouldn't deny him, then speaking denial three times in mere minutes. Just missing the point left and right. But in Luke the 24th chapter, when Peter sees the empty tomb and the linen cloths by themselves, he went home marveling at what he had seen. It makes me tear up even now, that Peter must have thought "oh, I see now. THAT'S what Jesus was talking about. That's what all this was for."

And then the beginning of Acts, you see a completely different Peter. The resurrection gave him such a great courage. He became a man of great faith. It gives great hope. 

Frank, Emily, and I all marveled at the marvel. 

I hugged my friends goodbye tonight and truly I was so grateful for our intersection on each other's journey. What learnings gained. A true gift to cross one another's path. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dental Discoveries

I have really good teeth. 

It was always my dad's thing. I've never had a cavity, don't need my wisdom teeth taken out, I like my big toothy smile. I went to the dentist in the spring, and the dental hygienist told me I had a big mouth and we both tilted our heads back and laughed when I told her well, I've heard that before. Hahaha jokes with the dentist. 

Also, I like to talk about my teeth, which maybe makes me a weird person. 

Then I went back to the dentist in October, all hopped up and ready to kill it. The dental hygienist looked at my mouth and proceeded to tell me that my gums are receding, I'm brushing my teeth too hard. She told me to cool it on the forceful tooth brushing or else I could need a gum graft (wait. what).


Maybe this is just a weird post about my recent dentist disappointments, or maybe this is about something bigger. I've thought about it a lot since, and not because I particularly care about my gums (who needs their gums anyway?), but because it was a little bit shocking. This is something I am good at!! But maybe it's a picture of something more. I do the best I can, but maybe sometimes our best just isn't enough. And I don't mean that in a weird, pessimistic way, but in a there MUST be dependency kind of way. 

Dependency on something Greater. 
And maybe there just are some things that can't and shouldn't be done alone or by our own efforts. And the most we do, the most we give, comes to full completion when we allow God to work in and through us. I can take something and run with it, and too often I don't have a full awareness of the presence of God with me. Or any awareness at all. But He is with me, of that I am certain. 

It's the thing I cling to in this season. God is with me, before and behind, and sweet freedom lies in the deep exhale that I am not built to do this alone. And when I feel like I'm parasailing or attached to a string like a yo-yo and I am being yanked up and down again and I am feeling a little off balance, I know God is for me. And none of this is really up to me (THANK GOD LITERALLY). There is a deep, sweet intimacy, leading, and guidance from the Lord that I just cannot fail to rely fully on (especially as a pastor).

THIS IS A TRUE STORY now I brush my teeth with more thoughtfulness, precision, intentionality, and grace. I am s l o w i n g down, at least in that one area of my life. 

Life is wonderful and full. Let's seize it. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

How Seminary Points Me to Christ

I love seminary. 

I have loved all of my classes. I love the conversation, the challenge, the change in perspective. All the classes I have taken so far (two years worth of them) have encouraged me to think differently, to think bigger, to engage with new ideas, to engage with old ideas in a new way. I think I'll always have a love for learning. I'll always be a lifelong learner. 

Don't get me wrong, it's hard. But a good friend told me once that it should be hard. Because it shows us ourselves, and if it's not hard, then why do it? That same friend always reminds me that you come out of seminary someone different than who you went in as. And that there's something to be said for being engaged in both ministry and seminary at the same time. I feel that, and I am grateful for those friends in my corner. 

I am often reminded of how much of privilege it is to learn. My mind expands and it really is a beautiful road I am journeying down. The processing is wonderful. It has really helped me to be a better pastor. My Church History class this semester has helped me see a current parents' perspective in their relationship with their daughter. It's really fantastic. 

But what I was reminded today, while completing an assignment for my Interpreting the Bible class, is how seminary points me to Christ. To the core, it helps me be a better person. A better child in relationship to the Father. 

I had my Bible (and a couple of reference books) open on the table, doing a word study from a few verses in Colossians. Being such a word person, I really enjoyed the assignment. A word study is, in a way, almost exactly what it sounds like. You study a word in Scripture based on the original Greek, its context, and other verses where the same word appears in order to find what the author intended for his original audience, the meaning of the word in the particular verse you're studying, etc. It's really quite fascinating.  

Today had been a long day. There are a lot of things that I have felt burdened by. Troubled by. Discouragement, mostly. Ministry is a tough, joyful, wonderful ride. But as I sat down with these verses open, as I read over and again what Paul meant to the people he meant it to, I felt overjoyed. The Word of God is the beautiful, alive, breathing breath of God. I don't know many things, but I do know that. Sitting with it open reoriented me. 

felt a renewed sense of what it is to be alive in Christ. What wonder, what peace at where true identity lies. My soul breathed yes in a deep sigh.

Carry on, souls. You are alive. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What I'm Learning from Taylor Swift

I remember my sophomore year of college when my friend Heather Johnson (now Varela) handed me a CD (yes, a CD) and said, "you've gotta listen to this new country singer."

That was quite a few years ago, but so began my love for Taylor Swift. 

It's Taylor's personal life lately that has me all pumped and inspired. It's her posts and her interviews, her Instagrams and her tweets. She's posted videos of Easter egg hunts with her brother, dances with 7 year old fans, throwing surprise parties for her friends from high school, her cats doing hilariously weird things. She's put up pictures of sweaters knit by random fans, videos of herself awkwardly falling, old photos from middle school. Last Christmas, she delivered surprise gifts to some of her fans in a video that is hilariously sweet, deeply personal, and incredibly thoughtful (Swift-mas). 

She spent all summer touring the country, inviting other celebrities to join her on tour and share the stage with her. She sang their songs with them, invited her fans to go crazy over themShe cheers on her friends' success, she is gracious in drama, she champions her competitors. Ryan Adams, a fellow artist, recently released a cover album of Swift's 1989, to which she replied "IS THIS TRUE??? I WILL PASS OUT."

I mean, what a breath of fresh air! I cannot get enough of it. 
She promotes kindness and vulnerability, humor and a good-natured spirit. 

I read an article in Relevant recently about the impact Taylor is having on our culture. How musical artists are often more than the music they create, but rather of what they represent and what they value. Sure, everyone loved Elvis - his music and his moves - but he really represented a shifting cultural mood of the 1960's. He gave a voice to the rock 'n roll culture, one of individuality, of freedom and rebellion. It's most often what we, the people, are crying out for. What we desire. I like this quote, There's a tendency for music fans to use artists to help vocalize and embody things they want to see in culture. Trends and popularity are reflective not only of cultural values, but of cultural voids.

The article goes on to say that maybe the reason Taylor Swift has such a massive appeal is because of who she is and what she's about. Like this, "culture finds its next pop star in a girl-next-door who seems to have little interest in salaciousness, edginess, or picking fights. Swift's image is about uniting - stylistically and squad-listically - not dividing." 


I think this is really significant. I think Taylor Swift's promotion of other people vs. self-promotion is saying a lot. It says a lot about what we hunger for, about what kind of influence she has, of what kind of influence we're letting her have. I think her influence in how she treats other people is such a great one. We want unity and togetherness, kindness and grace. I mean, come on. At the latest music awards show, she introduced Kanye West (her award show nemesis) by saying, "I have been a fan of his since I can remember because Kanye defines what it is to be a creative force in music, fashion, and well, life."

She then called him her friend. 
Grace upon grace. 

I can see that maybe this is what people really deeply, innately need. We cannot be about what we are for, but who we are for. We don't have stages or summer concert tours, but let's give other people the spotlight. Love people. Help everyone succeed. 

On my recent quest for kindness, I have encountered and interacted and observed people that have left me so inspired. My sister, Taylor, Tee Muhammad. They are life changers. Each of these people has taught me something new about what it means to love people. There are so many layers to how we treat people. To help everyone succeed. To be generous in our attitudes and actions. To welcome.

A journey. Cheers! 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Toast

You guys. My sister got married last Saturday!! 

It was such joy. A celebration, a time to laugh, cry, be free, celebrate love and marriage and a new family beginning. Cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and old neighbors came into town from all over and we cried and laughed and ate for three days straight. We danced all night and we sang and we hugged each other's necks and told one another how much we loved each other. I got to see my sister radiate with light and squeal with glee as she married her love. I sat beside my brother at both the rehearsal and the reception and he made me laugh big laughs. He is a kindred spirit. It was a weekend to cherish.

Perfect in every way.

Here's the maid of honor speech I so thoroughly enjoyed writing and had the great honor of giving. It was a joy to speak these words. Every single word meant. Cheers!


The older I get, the more I realize how much my family has shaped me. The person I have become, and the person I have hopes to become is largely because of my family. They are incredible people. The Knuckles family is one that believes in one another, looks out for one another, and laughs with one another. 

Recently, this past Father's Day, all of us came home, we gathered around the dinner table, and each of us asked my dad questions. Questions about fatherhood, his favorite memories, stories about our family. Then it was my mom's turn, and she looked at my dad and asked him, "what are you most proud of for each one of your kids? What do you admire about each one of them?"

And I'll never forget what he said about my sister. He looked at her and he said, your selflessness. You have always put other people before yourself. 

And I thought, that's it. 

My whole life, I have seen Meredith sacrifice her wants for other people's needs. I have seen her sacrifice the easy for the hard. I have seen her sacrifice the front seat on car rides (for me), her comfort in moving all the way across the globe. You love people to a sacrificial level. It has shaped me tremendously. 

So when it comes to tonight, to marriage, to this beautiful union together, you understand the sacrifice it takes. Your very life has always been about loving others as Christ has loved us. You love people so well, and I know you will continue to love David in this same sacrificial way for as long as you both shall live. 

So, if I could give you both two words, two pieces of advice, as you enter into the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven.

Be brave and to be kind. 
Be brave when life is hard. Have courage when it's unpredictable and uncertain, mysterious and unclear. Choose courage because God has promised to be with you. He has gone before you, He is with you, and He hems you in as you go. There is nowhere that He is not. 

Be kind. Choose kindness always. Choose to honor one another with your words and with your actions. Choose to create a home of kindness, and to shower one another with love, even when you don't feel like it. 

Meredith, thank you for the way you have influenced me. Thank you for your random dancing (which we've already seen a lot of today), your infectious silliness, the light you are in a sometime dark world. I love you and I am deeply proud to call you my sister. David, thank you for the way you care for my sister. You are not only my friend, but you are family.

 Many cheers, many prayers, and many blessings for many rich years together! 

Sunday, September 6, 2015

What Tragedy Has Taught Me

I don't often write about tragedy. Most of the time it's because I believe that words just won't do. Tragedy draws out the great tension of articulation. Other times, it's because I don't think I am the one to speak. Tragedy often makes me feel weird about the burden I have inherited. 

But what I am learning is two things.. which has led to the reason for this post. 
The first is that a crisis, a trauma, a tragedy has a communal effect that's almost ethereal. It's like the ripples of the ocean. There creates an incredible bond, heartrending conversation, a shared experience both with those close and with those far away. In a painful experience, people pull in close to one another in love and kindness. I am finding that it is indescribable. 

And the second is that sometimes there's inspiration in tragedy. 

I think often of the summer tragedy in Charleston. I think often of the people, of the hatred, of the love that turned out to be much stronger than the hatred. I think of heaviness that turns to hope, of brokenness that makes me curl up on the inside, of the resiliency of the human spirit. 

Most of all, I think of the welcome. 

It was welcome that allowed that young man to attend Bible study, that prayer group, on that particular night. Seething in hate, a stranger, he was welcomed into the church. He was welcomed into their building, into their study, their love, their time, into their community. It's the way the Church should be. 

If I'm being honest, I have felt betrayed and confused by the welcome. Is welcoming people in supposed to be so costly? Is it supposed to be this costly? Is it supposed to hurt this badly?  

What is most surreally stunning is the welcome in the aftermath. 
This quote, said by a hurting relative to the gunman at his arraignment, shakes me to my core.

"We welcomed you, Wednesday night, in our Bible study.. with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautiful people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts. But, as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. And may God have mercy on you."

I stumble over the depth of what these dear people have uncovered about who God is. I am quite honestly in deep awe of the grace and humility these words hold. It seems otherworldly and, well, I think because it is. He is still welcome to receive. It echoes of Christ on the cross, welcoming the thief into paradise. Christ on the cross, praying forgiveness because his killers did not know what they were doing. It inspires me deeply. The costly welcome. 

These tragedies tear people from the inside out. I cannot speak to the immense grief and sadness personally, but I can imagine it might make you not want to move again in more ways than one. I feel it many layers away, and I grieve with these people I know and do not know. But what I have observed in the tragedy is this inner strength of hope. This courage that helps you move forward. It's that quote, isn't it?, that has this booming undercurrent of courage. Courage and hope that says, no matter what you do to us, no matter what happens, and no matter what cards life deals us, we know God is with us. May God have mercy on you. There's power in forgiveness, in welcoming people into grace and love, and I believe it lifts us up and moves us forward. 

It continues to inspire me. 

(My good friend writes over at FrenchpressedFridays about this power of resurrection in the face of unspeakable circumstances and I believe he says it best. Will you please check it out?)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Legacy of Kindness

I've been in a blog series (pre-summer) on kindness. It just kind of happened that way, without any blog scripting or planning. Kindness has just been forever on my mind. What it looks like, what it feels like, how to choose it, how we must ally with one another, what it can do to us. The welcome of kindness. 

It has taken on a whole new form for me lately. I have seen and heard and felt how the ripple effect of kindness can wash over like the crash of a thousand waves. The kind of kindness that changes lives, that sets people free, the kind of kindness that tells people who they are and welcomes them in despite how they may feel or what they might think about themselves. 

Kindness communicates value and it communicates worth. 

I have known someone who embodied this, who lived it. Someone who inspired a domino effect of kindness, who made people ask the question of themselves, "wait. How am I treating others? Does my life reflect that I see other people as valuable and worthy?" Our sweet friend Tee, I believe he lived kindness to its core. He saw people not characterized by any category or box or label or limit, but as human beings worthy of respect. In its purest form, he just simply treated people right. 

At his memorial service a few weeks ago, I heard story after story of how his kindness changed people. One by one, people from all walks of life came to the front and shared how an encounter with Tee had made them feel safe. Had welcomed them in. Had turned their loneliness into belonging. I kept hearing their words and their stories and I kept thinking over and over again oh, what a life. what a legacy. 

Tee got it. He got that people matter, he got that people are welcome. His smile, his personality, his character, reflected the belief that every moment and every human being is sacred. There are no exceptions. Actions have influence, and oh did Tee influence towards love and belonging. 

I continue to be moved and inspired on a daily basis by Tee. What a privilege it is to have known him. His life and legacy have given a tremendous charge forward in the communal sadness that can never really be explained. His life helps paint a picture of what it means to live in the time we've been given. He brought heaven to earth.

So, be kind. Advocate for people. Bring them in to your home, your table, your conversation, your workout group, the break room, the seat on the bus. Love deeper and harder. Make kindness your first and only option. It means something far greater and more eternal than you could even imagine possible.

Good looking out, Tee. #muhammadbaby

Monday, May 18, 2015

Throw Kindness Like Confetti

Oh my friends, we have got to do better.
I, me, you, we have got to be better. 

I've been so burdened lately by the way I treat people. By the way we treat people. I've been so burdened by the stories I've heard lately. The stories of unkind words, unkind rumors, unkind tweets. I've been burdened lately by words. From all of us, but come on ladies, by how we're treating one another.

I read something Taylor Swift (yes TAYLOR) posted a few months ago, and after the stories I've heard lately, I keep desperately clinging to it. She posted that "we are at our best when we cheer each other on and build each other up."  I wholeheartedly - with my whole heart - believe this is so true to its core.

I saw a movie this past weekend that was supposed to be so funny, but I walked out thinking that wasn't very funny. It's not so funny to stereotype and demean, to judge and joke at the expense of others. And Taylor thundered in my ears as I drove home - we are AT OUR BEST when we cheer each other on and build each other up. 

We must be cheerleaders and builders, not destroyers and dissenters. 

We've got to speak better of each other
encourage one another
believe the best about each other. 
We've got to decide that we're all going to be on the same team.

Ain't nobody got time for drama. 
I crave something hopeful beyond the gossip and rumors and cruel words that cut to the core. Yes, something hopeful to choose before we choose to tweet or text or group message or screenshot. We are all capable of great kindness. 

And because people can be cruel and it's hard to be kind back, or for the moments we're cruel for a reason or maybe no real reason at all, can we practice these things together? I am so with you all. 

Can we change the way we communicate? Can we just decide that a tweet just won't do? Can we decide to look people in the eye instead of retreating behind a phone? Can we decide that when something happens, it doesn't end up with a third party (or a fourth or a fifth..)? Can we decide that words are of the utmost importance and when we choose to use them well, we pass value and courage to one another? And when we don't, when we exaggerate or lie or spread something untrue, something settles deep into the souls of our people? People are so much more than the words we say, can we make sure they know that?

Decide we don't want revenge. This one is weird and huge and hard and messy. But the quest for revenge tears holes and puts up walls. It tightens our hearts and retracts it into distrust. It gives power to seeing people in a light that isn't always true, a light that doesn't reflect others' fullest and freest selves. But instead, decide we want forgiveness. Forgiveness is elusive and mysterious and oftentimes a process, but somewhere deep within, it is the purest satisfaction for the thirst for revenge. And maybe for you, right now, it just looks like letting that person off the hook.   

Throw kindness around like confetti. I saw this on Pinterest once and I loved it so much. I can see it, this throwing kindness like confetti, I can really see it. Confetti is not glitter (amen) and it is appropriate in moments of celebration, of joy, of friendship. It makes me think of a party, of laughter, of showering others with love. Does it put those images in your mind too? And I can just see us walking around throwing kindness in the air and watching it rain down on one another, filling them with joy and goodness and laughter and freedom. Oh, it would be so abundant and so full. 

To begin to throw this confetti and to begin to pass this courage and kindness starts with an understanding who we are. We must understand who our friends, our enemies, our co-workers, and our classmates are. We must believe that we are all more. We're all created in the image of God, so our value is indescribable. Our worth is through the roof. When we look one another in the eye, when we say "I forgive you," when we acknowledge "you are more," oh it just gives power to our inherent and infinite worth.

Let's see people differently. Let's see them as the dearly loved, intricately valuable, wonderfully worthy, lovely human beings that have been made in the image of our Creator. Our looks are valuable, our gifts are valuable, our abilities are valuable, our personalities are valuable.

Grab your handful of confetti, let's throw some around today! 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Didn't They Say Only Love will Win in the End

Kindness and love, they just might be everything.

Lately, my mind and heart are being opened to the fullness of kindness. Of what love may really mean. The thought of welcome still catches in my gut and steals my breath away. It's be free at its core. I keep tossing these questions around in my mind and my heart, the idea of welcome. The what if of welcome. What would it really mean if everyone was welcome, if we told everyone they were in? everyone. welcome. here. 

There's this new Mumford and Sons album out and there's this new song on it about loneliness and hunger and thirst, and that maybe love is the key. Maybe it's the answer. 

Can you just imagine? I've been imagining lately, and it is gloriously and incomprehensibly good. All people are invited and welcome and as obvious as that may sound, I am just imagining the sheer vastness of it. It screams safety and belonging, things all people so desire in the core of their souls. No one is outside the reach of the Love and Goodness and Grace and Peace or outside the Body of Christ. Everyone has a story and everyone is welcome. 

I read Isaiah 61 lately and I see it differently.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, 
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound

That all people everywhere and all the time and me and you are the ones. We're the brokenhearted, the captive, the blind, and the prisoners in need of being set free. The people in our midst, these are the ones to love. At the very beginning of his ministry, in Luke chapter 4, in a synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus unrolled the scroll and read just that. And I think that these words are just what Jesus came to do. Freedom, good news, healing, value. Divine Love.  

My mom and I went out this past week for an evening with Bryan Stevenson. I could talk about him for hours, his work is just so astounding to me. He's a human rights lawyer in Alabama who believes that every person is more than the worst thing they've done and that forgiveness is a necessary means to achieving equality for all. I am inspired by him and by what he believes. He believes in an identity of hope, mercy, grace, and courage. 

He works exclusively with our criminal justice system, with poverty and racial inequalities that exist there. And Bryan goes in our prisons and onto death row and helps free the poor, the innocent, the ones wrongly accused, the mentally unstable. He sits down with them and he hears them. Children and teenagers who have survived traumatic childhood experiences are on death row for crimes committed in moments of danger, coercion, vulnerability. They kill the abusive stepfather or participate in the gang initiation. And Bryan sits with them and he hears them. Some of these people are in tight spots and no one to speak for them. It's excruciatingly heartbreaking. Bryan Stevenson goes in and says YOU ARE MORE. He says, you are more.

I love this quote from his book Just Mercy. He writes, "whenever things got really bad and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each one of us is is more than the worst thing we've ever done. I told them that if someone told a lie, that person is not a liar. If you take something that doesn't belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer. You are more than broken."

Mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given. Mercy is most empowering, liberating, and transformative when it is directed at the undeserving. The people who haven't earned it, who haven't sought it, are the most meaningful recipients of our compassion. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can't otherwise see; you hear things you can't otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each one of us. 

I know how broken and sad and afraid people can be. I know, me too. I know how fear can eat people alive. How the belief that they have become the worst thing they've done can turn people into the worse and lesser versions of themselves. People can shut you out so fast, just because they believe something untrue about themselves. It's so hard, isn't it? It hurts so bad, doesn't it? When people can't look you in the eye anymore or something is broken in how you used to operate. 

I am learning that there is this clear and present peace that exists within kindness. Kindness is power. It changes everything. There is this assurance within that there is a better way to treat people. There is a better way to respond. We have it ingrained in us to shun people who mistreat us, to turn our backs on those who are cruel, to return the favor to those who don't make us feel welcome. But I believe it is kindness that can save us. Love that saves us. Every time we choose to acknowledge the fear and sadness and believe that people are more, we set one another free. The people in our midst, they are more. 

Love, it's got to be the avenue through which we bless others. 

But if I'm honest, there's sometimes a dissenting voice that resides within me. A tiny part of me. She will squeak, but wait. could love and mercy and kindness really be this good??  Sometimes she'll yell louder that indifference is the answer. The difficult, fearful, broken, the insecure, the jerks, they need to be ignored. Just don't acknowledge those who you feel shouldn't be loved, the voices of Narrow-mindedness and Fear and Selfishness and Pride say. 

My lioness, though, she roars in response. It's what I call the brave and good and true, confident thoughts.  She will roar, "wait but no. I don't think that's it. I think it's kindness. I think being kind and showing love to people, I think that's it." She roars back deep in my core, WHY NOT. who is on the outside, isn't everyone in??

Love. It must be the avenue through which we bless others.

The way we invite others in, the way we treat others, the way we love and show grace.
Maybe Mumford and Sons have got it all right. Didn't they say only love will win in the end?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

TED Talks, Empathy, and Courage

I've been listening to TED Talks nonstop these days. THERE ARE SO MANY GOOD ONES. One of my most recent favorite talks (from one of my most recent favorite people) is by a man named Bryan Stevenson. He's a human rights lawyer and the founder of Equal Justice Initiative, a non profit organization that seeks to challenge racial discrimination in our criminal justice system. My mom gave me his book called Just Mercy.. and I'm struggling to put it down. This guy gets it. 

There are people out there doing work like Bryan Stevenson. Fighting for good things, passing hope to those living in hopelessness. His words, his work, encourage me so much. He's given his life to bring value to people who don't have a voice, to show compassion, to tell people they're worthy. He's sold out to human dignity and identity. He's helped given me perspective. He gets it, he gets it. 

And so I'll be honest with you all. 
It's been a challenging past few weeks. I have let things steal joy, I have massively let pride cloud my perspective. Even now, I sit and I try not to cry because the mind just got so confused. Self examination has brought some shockingly hard realizations. I've asked myself the hard questions WHY and am startled at what my heart has revealed. All the worst versions of myself. But with it, it's not all been bad. Because after the crucifixion comes resurrection, am I right? 

So, here are some things I am reminding myself are true about me, and these very things I know to be true about you too. 

I am believed in. I had one of my most valuable pieces of corner look me in the eye this weekend and say, I believe in you. And at a moment when I wasn't sure I believed in myself anymore, I had really let myself and those around me down, this kind and gentle corner said, yes. but I believe in you. What grace. I'm convinced those are four of the most powerful words in the English language.

I am not alone. There are people surrounding me (and you) who want to douse your shame and all your things with empathy. Another fav, Brene Brown, says these words in her TED Talk (another one to check out). She says this, "If we're going to find our way back to each other, we have to know empathy. Empathy is the antidote to shame. The two most powerful words to hear when we're in struggle is "me too." If we're going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path." yes yes yes. There are people within arm's length who want to look you in the eye and say me too (another thing my corner did for me this weekend). And then there are the others who might not be gifted in empathy, and that is okay. They are still your people to the very core and they love you and they are good at other things (aren't we all). Pull those people in too. 

What I think is liability is actually asset. This one is the hardest for me to swallow sometimes. I need this one repeated the most. But what I'm finding to be true (GRACE UPON GRACE) is that the very things about myself that often make me cringe are really the very things that bring value. The way I'm made, the way I'm wired, the way I operate - ugh I can't be the only that thinks Lord have mercy, why do I act/think/respond this way??  But, what if they are value? What if my emotion is value? What if God actually knew what he was doing (ha) when he created you and me and these things about us actually have the potential to bring life? What if there really was a choice and the me that is me isn't inherently a roadblock, but only unless I allow it to be?

Give yourself grace, it really is all okay. Ha! Oh, how good this is. It's okay! Oh yes, people, it's okay. Now pick yourself up and brush yourself off and LET'S DO THIS THING. 

You're probably wondering what Bryan Stevenson has to do with all of this. I've got a point, I'll end with Bryan. He tells this story in his TED Talk (you can watch it here) about hanging out with Rosa Parks (oh you know, no big deal). She asks him what he does, what the Equal Justice Initiative is all about, and he starts reeling off his organization and what his vision is and what he's trying to do, what he's trying to change. 

And when he finishes, Ms. Parks says to him, mhmm. That's going to make you tired, tired, tired. 

And then another woman leans in close to Bryan and says, and that's why you've got to be brave, brave, brave. 

Be brave, friends. Be brave. 
Pass courage to one another. Lift up your head. It's a good thing you're doing. Let's keep doing it together.