When Someone is Covered in Shit

While sitting outside talking to Anne, I see Cindy look at me from across the porch and know she's going to come over and ask for something. Her floral dress hangs down to the ground with a brownish smear, a stain, and she quickly gathers the fabric forward to hide it.

"Do you have any extra pants?"

There are no extra pants but I tell her I'll go and look. I do this sometimes when I don't want the first thing I say to someone to be, "No."

"What size are you honey?" Anne interrupts.

Cindy tells Anne her size and Anne goes into her bag and pulls out rumpled pair of pants, saying, "These are too big for me." She also pulls out a t-shirt and hands it over to Cindy.

Cindy thanks Anne and shuffles toward the door. It's obvious she's also made a mess of the back of her dress and her shoes and her socks. Inside, the bathroom is blessedly in a rare unoccupied state.

By the time Cindy retrieves what she needs out of her pack, the bathroom is occupied again. Cindy looks through the little tub of donated hotel soaps and shampoos we set out for showers. One night someone walked in off the street, picked a thick bar of soap out of the tub and took a bite out of it like it was a cookie.

I can smell Cindy now. I ask Cindy if she's going to be able to clean herself up. I tell her she's number twelve on the shower list and we usually only get through ten showers on a shift. I don't stop to listen to her. The words are tumbling out of me.

I say, "I want you to be able to take a shower now. Is that okay with you?"

She says yes. I simultaneously feel like a Very Good Person and want to get her into the shower room and be finished with her.

She chokes a little and starts crying as I turn away. "I'm so embarrassed. I'm sorry to be a bother and make a mess. I'm so embarrassed."

I'm finally listening to her now. I see her, for the first time, as a child. I encounter her now as a person, not a problem.

Cindy emerges from the shower room after her allotted time and takes a seat at a table. The next person on the list calls me over and says, "Uh, can you guys clean that up?"

Poop is smeared on the floor, on the radiator, on the toilet.

As the mop bucket fills, Shani, a regular volunteer, pops her head in and asks if wiping up the mess with paper towels first might be best. That's what I was thinking too.

"Okay, hand me some gloves and I'll get started," she says.

The mop bucket is full now and Shani is crouched down wiping up poop and putting dirty paper towels in a bag. This is a radical act of love for Network, for Cindy, and ultimately for Christ, which Shani undertakes like it's nothing.

Our humanity lives closer to meekness than to strength. Vulnerability and mercy make us transparent to ourselves and present to our neighbor, while security and confidence conceal. We are children, all of us, reaching out and up, only asking to be embraced by love.

The Death of All We Hold Dear

One day the money was gone. It had been gone for some time. I did not know that, but one day I found out. The sinking feeling was above my childhood intelligence, a drone hovering just above my ken striking with precision and grayed-out calculation.

I welcomed anger after a time, anger at those who pulled from underneath us the threadbare rug we were told could cover our world's floor. We were safe. Then we were not safe. I let this anger live in me and I cherished it, fed it kindling and praised its warmth.

One day, a decade later, the hope of money was gone. I had reconciled the anger long enough to choose a way forward. There was a plan, until Financial Sector Greed swept through my life (and many lives) as a typhoon sweeps upon the beach. I did not know what to do. I still don't. I welcomed despair, let it live in me and wrapped it in swaddling clothes. I cooed to it and let it whisper back to me.

People like to mince words with the Gospel, tsk tsk to you that the love of money is evil, not money itself. But they are made lesser for money's existence and cannot see what parts of themselves have been cut away by a world-sized scalpel. Money is evil; there is no doubt. Systems built upon it are corrupt at their foundations, as the human holding the precious dollar can never mean as much as the dollar itself. If they ever did, the system could not hold.

I do not welcome anger at this opening of the eyes, nor despair at the sights I have learned to see. I have wept what I will weep. The only path to walk is the one pointed toward the end of capital. It is a long walk. There will be no extra energy available for hatred or despair. Only a setting of the jaw and a resolution to step one step before another will do. You can call that love. That's what the death of money will look like. Me, loving you, loving me.

Kim Davis, Freedom of Conscience, and the American Tradition of Religious Pluralism

Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis has been in the news for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on the grounds that her religious beliefs forbid it. She has been jailed, national politicians have jumped to her defense, she has been both demonized and trumpeted as a hero. The pluralism of belief in the United States means that the place of religion in public life will always have the potential to be one of the most divisive topics in American politics.

In the documents that form the United States and in their own private lives and discourse, our Founders intended to establish a society where freedom of conscience reigned and no one would be subject to coercion in their beliefs by an official of the government. Because the U.S. is an increasingly religiously diverse nation, an authentic, ongoing, sharp-edged pluralistic discussion is a necessity if the unity of the United States is to be maintained and a just society is to be cultivated. Otherwise, our rhetoric will devolve into the vitriol we have seen surrounding Kim Davis and the gay marriage question in the last few weeks.

A Christian Nation?

Kim Davis, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson would not exactly see eye-to-eye with the Founders who made concrete their Enlightenment principles in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. While the Founders certainly carved out a place for religion in America, they never gave credence to a specific religion.

A well-known document crafted by John Adams and the U.S. Senate puts this bluntly. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. Specifically Article 11:

the government of the United States... is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.[^1]

President George Washington, for his part, was no Christian. According to Brooke Allen, on his deathbed Washington did not speak of heaven or ask for a minister to preside over his death. Rather, "his last act was to take his own pulse, the consummate gesture of a creature of the age of scientific rationalism."[^2]

Other Founders went to greater lengths to impose their rationalism on the world. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia with no religious affiliation, and "even banned the teaching of theology at the school."[^3] It is well-known that Jefferson edited his own version of the New Testament, which he called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Jefferson carefully deleted (literally cut out of the Bible with a scalpel) any miraculous passage of the Gospels that did not conform to Jefferson's understanding of reason.

These three examples don't cover the entire body of men who shaped the beginnings of the United States,[^4] but they represent a sample of the kinds of sentiments that operated among men of their standing and generation. For the Founders, the main concern about religion was that the new nation be free from bondage to its rule. With this concern, the Founders established a possibility for pluralism and laid the groundwork for the great flourishing of religion we see today.

The Founders understood that the power afforded the banner of religion by its adherents could be a corrupting agent in government. They knew that governmental power and religious power combined could be catastrophic to the new nation. They sought to mitigate the threat to individual freedom posed by the confluence of religion and government.

In the person of Kim Davis, we can see the outcome when government power and religious doctrine meet. In her power as a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, Kim Davis has unilaterally limited the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of her fellow citizens based on her religious beliefs alone.

There is an overwhelming feeling in the United States that the country will tear itself apart over issues of religious diversity, including secularism. However, according to John Meacham “history suggests… that there is hope, for we have been fighting these battles from our earliest days and yet the American experiment endures.”[^5] The question is why, even with all of the challenges presented by a society like the United States, the Union still stands.

The Founders knew this would be a divisive issue for their new nation. Their solution was to separate the state from the power of religion and religion from the power of the state. These separations were grounded in freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Conscience

What does freedom of conscience mean? Basically what we’re talking about here is freedom from external coercion directed by the government. However, it cannot mean that individualism and total self-sovereignty reign. That is the way being tested by Kim Davis and her supporters.

If freedom of conscience is to flourish, it must be based first on respect—perhaps even love—between individuals, and it must be guarded by the government. Freedom of conscience, guaranteed by America’s framing documents, promises something deeper than freedom to act, speak, and assemble; it promises that the right to think freely will be defended by the government, as long as citizens respect each other.

The Founders did not seek to separate “faith and politics” or “religion and public life.” No. They sought to separate the institutions of religion and government. Separating the public spheres of religion and government was not about secularizing society, it was about “protecting conscience by insisting on clear institutional boundaries.”[^6] Personal faith could inform politics, private religion could be manifest in public life, and how an individual chose to exercise her religion was her own business. But faith itself “should not be singled out for special help or particular harm” among private citizens.[^7]

In a nation as diverse as the United States, the government and its officers have a responsibility to the free thought of every individual under the government’s power. Importantly, the Constitution’s religion clauses exist not only to protect doctrinaire believers, but to “protect the right of religious dissenters.”[^8] For the Founders, the greatest sin was to impinge upon another human being’s freedom of thought and ability to choose. Here the reader may herself connect the issue of “religious dissenters'” rights being impinged upon to the actions taken by Kim Davis’.

For Americans, the way forward is paved by freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution and in respect for one another. For Christians, the way forward is paved by love of neighbor grounded in Christ and in freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution.

Pluralism

”Freedom of conscience is, in a sense, the reason for pluralism and also the appropriate and just response to pluralism.”[^9]

Pluralism is forever an attempt. The point of pluralism is not to achieve perfect agreement on all matters and tastes. Pluralism is not the savior of society; it will not fix all ills or erase sin from the world. What pluralism does do is aim at achieving relationship. Only if we openly, respectfully disagree can we come to understand our disagreements and begin to find common ground. The Founders knew this and so built freedom of conscience into the Constitution through separation of church and state, providing the foundation of plurality itself.

This is all well and good, but if the discussion of who we are devolves from respectful dialogue to angry muttering, idealistic positivism (as in the Kim Davis case), or outright violence, then we should begin to worry.

A generation of pluralism is not enough. A commitment to religious literacy, respect, understanding, and the responsibility of citizens to teach their children the way of pluralism is required. For Christians, pluralism means dedication to Jesus' command, “You shall love your neighbor.” American Christians should be the champions of pluralism. It is time that we worry less about politics and more about love. Building a perfect society is an unattainable goal. We will not save ourselves from sin. But pluralism grounded in freedom of conscience and love of neighbor grounded in Christ are steps toward a society that cherishes justice for all.

It's All Holy Communion

(Please also see Mark's timely post on this issue.)

My reaction to city government restrictions on serving food to homeless individuals in public? Let's fight the laws and spend some time with the homeless doing something other than giving them food.

Things to do with homeless people in public not involving handing out food:

  • Share Holy Communion
  • Go to a restaurant and order food
  • Ask if they have special skills or secrets to teach you
  • Do random acts of kindness for strangers together
  • Watch funny videos on YouTube
  • Hug if you both want to hug
  • Ask what they want to do
  • Sit and talk about rights
  • Sit and talk economics
  • Sit and talk theology
  • Sit and talk politics
  • Care for a community garden
  • Start a guerrilla garden
  • Do an art project
  • Sing a song
  • Tell stories
  • Listen to music
  • Watch a movie
  • Watch a TV show
  • Share a cigarette
  • Give out sleeping bags
  • Give out toothbrushes
  • Give out wash-clothes
  • Give out conditioner
  • Give out toothpaste
  • Give out underwear
  • Give out shampoo
  • Give out tampons
  • Give out lotion
  • Give out pads
  • Give out combs
  • Give out tissues
  • Give out water
  • Give out tarps
  • Give out socks
  • Give out shoes
  • Give out soap
  • Give out hats
  • Play a game
  • Play checkers
  • Play chess
  • People watch
  • Read a book
  • Shake hands
  • Take a walk
  • High five
  • Laugh
  • Smile
  • Listen
  • Cry

I get that the first thing on the list involves sharing food. But it's all Holy Communion, isn't it? If you're arrested for sharing Communion, it's a whole new ballgame.

Grandaddy

The thing I’ll remember most about my grandfather is his hug. A hug from him was a strong, powerful, enveloping thing. He was a wispy figure, but was somehow always able to lift me up when I ran in the front door. He would swoop me up with an urgency and hold me, vice-like yet gentle. When I got older, too big to lift up, the hugs were still strong as beastly jaws and soft as down. I craved those hugs, excited to visit my grandparents to hear my grandmother’s laugh and rest in my grandfather’s arms. When my grandmother’s laughs were no more, the hugs remained. Now the hugs are gone, too, but not the memory or the meaning they left. He loved me, and I loved him.

My grandfather loved deeply and broadly, firm in the knowledge of his createdness and his role to love those around him. It’s an example I’ll take with me until my own death. Love big, hug big, and that love will define your family and relationships with the swiftness of rapids in water and with the power of booming echoes in the deepest canyons of time. Grandaddy died early Monday morning, a being of lovely stardust returned to stardust, free to be one with Grandmama in the long memory of God. Be proud of your life extraordinarily lived, Grandaddy, for Death cannot be proud now. It's only poppy and charms, after all. Your hugs will always be stronger than those.

Clean Your Bowl

This morning, at precisely 3:53 a.m., my dog threw up. Twice. I groaned in tandem with his familiar wretching which precedes a barf by about two seconds. Not enough time to change what's happening, but just enough time to yell "NOOOOOO" in slow motion. I swung myself out of bed as he happily bounced around my legs. He's 85 pounds, so the bouncing is usually entertaining. Not this time. He's happy that I'm up and ready to let him out or feed him or whatever his small brain thinks is going to happen now that I'm magically up a couple hours early for some reason who knows why gee what could it be? He's always chipper right after; yes, this happens regularly. About once every six weeks, at approximately the same time in the wee hours of the morning, my dog hurls. For no reason. And he's fine. The vet says it's most likely a mild form of a condition some dogs have. It involves stomach bile, and I'm supposed to be happy that it doesn't happen every morning because that's a thing apparently. There's not much I can do to change it, he says. Awesome.

I don't have children, but I do have Palmer. I imagine that what I feel for him is the closest I'll get to unconditional love until I do have a kid. I suppose that's only fair, since he feels unconditional about me. I am the greatest in his color-deficient eyes, the pinnacle of creation. I am the giver of food, the benevolent provider of walks, the keeper of treats. Oh, and the chump who gives up a large chunk of bed so that he can spread out comfortably. All these feelings considered, they're not what get me out of bed at 3:53 a.m. to clean up dog vomit. I mean, they're a part of it, but the action is more about just doing what needs doing in the moment. Taking the next step.

A couple posts back, Logan introduced a new running project called Aletheia. It's an effort to spotlight small pieces of text that touch on something essential, something true. One of the included pieces was a story told to me by a friend a year or so ago. It turned out to be a case story from The Gateless Gate, a central text for the Rinzai school of Zen. The original story is slightly different from the way it was told to me[^1], but how I heard it first has stuck so clearly and powerfully, I continue to share it that way.

A student said to his teacher, “Master, teach me Zen.”

The teacher replied, "Have you eaten your meal?”

“Yes.”

“Then wash your bowl.”

I love this story. It's incredibly difficult to be present, to do what comes next without laboring over the steps beyond. Maybe we get little glimpses of it, like when we're cleaning up a mess before dawn even has a chance to break, practicing the motions without worrying about what comes next. I guess some might see that as the blurry result of being rudely awakened, but who says awakening has to be gentle? For the novice meditator (that's me), I see the practice as letting motions fall into place while doing my best not to question the moment to death. If I've eaten my meal, then I should clean my bowl. One step after the other, walking softly in a circle until the thought is no-thought, until there is breath and no-breath. Rise and fall, rise and fall. Clean your bowl.

[^1]: The historical background on this text, at least as I've read, revolves around enlightened practitioners eating rice while maintaining deep meditation. Insane, I know. With this element, you can see that the student is asking how to achieve awakening, yet he's already done it. He's eaten his rice in this fashion, so there's nothing left to teach.

Lights Please

I wrote this piece in response to a blogger named Matt Walsh (not the wonderful comedian) who wrote a piece on suicide, depression, and Robin Williams which just happened to be one of the most factually ignorant and spiritually misguided things I've ever had the misfortune to read. I'm not going to link to it. If you feel the need to read it, you can find it easily. The last thing I want for the Beard is clicks for him from here.

Walsh sees depression in decidedly non-medical terms, as a something which can be overcome by “joy,” presumably of divine origin, and which can lead to suicide, something that he defines in large part as a spiritual decision. There’s so much wrong with this harmful viewpoint that it’s hard to tackle, but the best way to counter is to tell the reality I know firsthand. This is a reality Walsh does not know. He writes on Facebook:

"A lot of you didn't even read [the Robin Williams piece]. Very disappointing. Also, don't tell me what I have or haven't dealt with. Don't do that. You have no idea. You have no idea what I've seen in my own family and in my own community. Don't sit there and tell me that just because you disagree. How dare you. Disgusting, truly."

While I can't say much about what you believe you've dealt with, I can very much say what you haven't dealt with: the depression you're talking about. I know this in the same way that only someone who was on Normandy beach at D-Day could tell you what it's like to be on Normandy beach on D-Day. People who've been in the shit know the shit, and I'm confident that you haven't been in the shit, at least not the kind you wrote about.

Feelings

“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” – David Foster Wallace [^1]

I sang at his funeral. I played "Here Comes the Sun" because I knew it would have made him smile. I told a story before I played, a story he'd told me about driving down to the coast to see the sunrise before rushing back to make his shift at work. He was my friend. We'll call him R. I think about him often. I was thinking about him the day before I heard about Robin Williams, actually.

The difference between R and I is that he walked through the door, and I did not. Let me explain.

When I heard about Robin Williams, my heart sank. It sank because of the meaning he'd brought me through his talent and because I knew why he committed suicide. People who've been on the brink have the unique perspective of knowing both why one steps over and why one steps back. I've been there. It's not something I talk about much, because who the hell wants to talk about it? The best image I can conjure for depression is the incredible shot in Gravity when Sandra Bullock is first floating away from ship after the debris collision. It's that empty. You are that small, and everything is that dark and cold. It's not passionate, it's not writhing in agony or some other expression of extreme misery and pain. It's deadening. It's numb. Dick Cavett was interviewed on NPR about Williams, and what he said toward the end of the interview struck me with its simplicity and truth.

"Another thing I'm sure that people all over the place are saying—how could he do this to his children and his wife? Easy—they don't mean anything to you. You can't feel anything. It sounds awful to say, but it's one of the worst things about it."

This truth is the problem behind people viewing suicide as a selfish act. In the depths, those people whose love and life make them real and present to you, just as you would be present were your love and life not buried so deeply, do not exist. You can't be "selfish" if there is no one else. It does sound awful, doesn't it, Mr. Cavett? But it's what happens. So maybe the act is selfish, but only for the people standing at the top of the abyss looking in. If you're all alone down there, if you are floating off into the eternity of space, how can you possibly be selfish? You're all there is.

The book "Hyperbole and a Half" by Allie Brosh does one of the best jobs of putting the empty nature of depression into words and images. For me, it started young, 8th grade or so. Things just gradually got grayer as time passed. I didn't know something was truly wrong, or that this wasn't the normal state of things. I was growing up, and figured this was part of it. I mean, I later realized adulthood sucks but this was different. Eventually, I was there in the empty. Life had lost its color. I thought about suicide a lot, had a plan for it, felt cowardly every day I couldn't do it. Then I stopped feeling cowardly along with all the other non-feelings, and shuffled through my days with a casual wonder if I'd see tomorrow. It was a remarkably detached feeling.

I came through it with the help of friends and family, people whose love overpowered my non-love. It could have easily gone the other way, though, because it would be years until I sought professional help. Of course, even after getting help there were a couple of serious lapses in which I found myself once again facing the real thought that non-living had to be better than living because living had become more grayscale than I ever imagined it could be.

Choices

R suffered from severe mental illness. He was a joyful person, a person I laughed with more times than I can count. Joy wasn’t antithetical to his life. Why? Because joy is the opposite of sadness, of despair. And depression is not "sad." It's emptiness, the complete lack of all things that make life worth living, which is terrifying. What's just as awful is that in your messed-up brain, you know it's terrifying. Like David Foster Wallace notes, you aren't immune to the terror of the situation. It's just that the scales start tipping in a way you never thought they would; eventually you find yourself in a position so unnervingly removed that completely removing yourself seems sensible if not downright correct.

R was faced with two scenarios: the utter lack of feeling, of self, of relation which weighed upon him with no regard to his "choice" in the matter, or the zombie-like state his heavy medications put him in. Doesn't sound like much of a choice, does it? That's because it isn't. Not in the sense that we think of, when we think of two opposing options, like when Walsh holds up joy and depression. It's more like the choice Wallace describes in the quote above. You've got two terrors to choose between, and in the end there is no real choice between the two.

It’s hard to accept logically, that at the end there is no choice. It's one way forward, and it's clear as day. At the end, it's the fire or the window. You pick the window because, duh, who wouldn't? Mental illness is no more a choice than any other disease with the capacity to maim and kill the body. Nobody asks for it, and no choice made after having it can stand up to the scrutiny of the true meaning of the word "choice." At best, you've got limited options, but never choice with a big C.

That lack of choice in addition to the lack of all things is why I want to correct people who say suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.[^2] No. Sometimes the problem doesn't leave, and, for those mired in the illness, there appears only one viable solution. Nothing temporary about it. I know what you’re thinking: “but you just said ‘appears’! That means there is one!” Yes, but it does no good that you on the outside can see it. Reality is fundamentally altered by depression. Time and space are stretched and twisted in depression, and knowing that does nothing to change the experience of it. It’s one of those things you just have to trust from someone who has been through it. Some people are just able and lucky enough to stick it out. Some people are lucky enough to get help, the right kind of help, before it's too late.

My depression isn't cured, and nothing will cure it. But it can be helped, and it can be held at bay. You won't find a bigger advocate for medication and therapy than me. I don't tell a depressed friend that meds are a cure, but I do laud them as a way to keep going. Like Gandalf's staff in the Mines of Moria, my meds are a light that holds orcs and goblins at bay. You can make your way out of the deep places with such a light, but the danger doesn't subside. It backs off. You find ways to fight it, even ways to win numerous battles over it. You put solid distance between those evil things and yourself, enough to feel well and safe.

Things will get truly better, not because you're cured, but because remission is still something to celebrate. This is all after getting help, mind you. And getting help is not about having enough strength, just as not getting help does not denote weakness. Some people are just lucky enough to get the help they need, are able to try enough treatments until something works, able in the right moment to ask for help or have someone strong enough to drag them to it before they end their life. This doesn't make them better than those who end up committing suicide, just as the soldier who steps on a land mine is no better than the soldier walking beside her. It's random, and that sucks. But there it is.

But you know what? Matt Walsh is right about one thing. For those with faith, for those who have known or wish to know God, there is a spiritual truth in the depth of depression. Unfortunately, it's the felt absence of God, the experience of a vacuum where even God cannot or does not choose to enter. There is only you and a door. Either you sit in the dark, or walk through the door. And you think about those options believing God is not with you in one of those places.[^3] Hopefully, you're pulled up like a rag doll before you take those steps (because you gave up trying to climb out long ago). Life is worth living, but this is a fact written on a page unreadable in the dark.

I don't say any of this to say that suicide is inevitable; it's not. If you need help, get help. If it takes your loved ones dragging you to the doctor, if it takes your last ounce of self-care to pick up the phone, do it. Get help.[^4] From someone who could have put the other foot over the edge and didn't, listen when I say that there are good things waiting for you outside of the abyss. Not a perfect life, but good things. They are worth knowing, touching, loving.

And if you're a person standing at the top of the bottomless pit, trying to catch a glimpse of your loved one, just keep reaching your hands down there and lowering ropes. Your task is not to chide, not to question why, not to explain depression away; it is to love for someone who cannot love for themselves. It is also to know that they don't want to be down there any more than you want them to be down there. They didn't choose to jump in. They can't joy themselves out or some other fucking stupid notion.[^5] But they will take a hand if they're able to see it; we can pray they're lucky enough to do so.

Love each other. Love yourself as best you can. Reach out as often and as best as you are able. Know that you are loved. Know that grace abides for those loved ones who could not abide.

  • [^1]: Infinite Jest
  • [^2]: I know this is a line similar to one Williams delivers in the fantastic film "World's Greatest Dad," a dark comedy dealing with a son's suicide. If you ask me, William's film "What Dreams May Come" hits a little closer to the mark on what the suicidally depressed person's seemingly never-ending isolation looks like.
  • [^3]: I'm not saying this to get you riled up or to start a debate about the nature of God and belief in God. I'm telling you how it feels down there. If God is the loving one who pulls you up, you'll hear nothing but praise from me.
  • [^4]: National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
  • [^5]: I'm personally grateful for joy called "generic Zoloft."

Quiet Please, Christ Child Sleeping

Christmas celebrations are often full of sound. It would be good for us to make room for silence, to hear the voice of Love. – Pope Francis, via Twitter

The pope has a point on this one. When I read this quote a few days ago, I immediately started thinking about the sounds of the season, about how much we let Christmas and the holidays in general be dominated by sound. It makes sense really; so many, especially those of us raised in Christian tradition, are moved by the carols, spoken prayers, and scripture we’ve come to associate only with this one special time of year. So what I’m about to say isn’t that any of this is bad. Sound is fine; actually, it’s an amazing part of being a human with functioning hearing. But it isn’t what’s holy about Christmas, at least not to me.

I realize that there’s a lot of stuff, like, biblical stuff, that someone could point to and say, “That part of the coming of Christ is all about sound, and it seems pretty holy to me.” And I’m not going to argue with you. There are angels who scare a bunch of shepherds with what must have been an astounding, though nonsensical, announcement. There’s the annunciation that kicked it all off. There’s even a squalling baby who’s pretty integral to the plot. But for me, there are two critical pieces to the coming of Christ – Christ coming in the first place, and how we react to that arrival. The distinction is important, because I see that first part as the one which contains all the elements of sound, of language and praise and pronouncement. But the second part, where we are confronted with holiness incarnate and must experience it in relationship, is a silent moment draped in awe and the fullness of being.

It isn’t quiet where I’m writing this; it’s a bustling coffee shop, the week after Christmas, people rejoining to recount their holiday trips, stopping in before continuing to shop and spend gift cards, employees falling back into the groove after an all-too-short break. But I’ve made an effort to find my peace, my joy in Christmas, in the quiet spaces. And for those of us who celebrate the mystery that is Emmanuel, God with us, we are still in the season. Epiphany approaches, and in it we have maybe the strongest example of the contemplative act that is seeking to rest in the presence of the Christ. The wise men seek the Christ, not to speak to a newborn or sing to wake him, but to stand in awe in the full yet silent light of God.

The path of the wise men toward their star isn’t one which requires language, hosannas, or even explanation. It is an intentional walk to meet the face of God, to look into the mysterious Love that is a child born to bring grace. Their walk to the manger is a prayer all its own, and we can mimic the act and its meaning. We can seek the Christ in our own silent meditation, in a walking prayer, in the contemplative moments silence affords. I think it’s what Thomas Merton meant when he prayed, “My God, I pray better to You by breathing. I pray better to You by walking than talking.” The holiness of Christmas is standing silently beside a baby, marveling at the love and creativity wrapped up in its being, and knowing all is well. Merry Epiphany.

Eggs

Today was an interesting day, church wise.

I'm a member at St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Denver, Colorado where I'm also the volunteer coordinator for the Sunday Meal Program (SMP), which needs a new name. Each Sunday morning St. Paul's serves an average of 150 meals to the homeless and food insecure of Denver.

Monday through Saturday around 40 locations are available to grab a free meal across the Denver metro. That number drops to 5 or 6 on Sunday. Why such a dip on Sunday? Without delving into it, I'm not sure if religious obligation trumping the command to be merciful is at play here, but I wouldn't be surprised. I won't go down that tangent for now, but suffice it to say St. Paul's program is a vital resource for those who might not otherwise find a place to eat on Sunday.

Much of the food we typically serve at SMP is sourced from food banks. While this allows us to provide a meal each Sunday at a very low cost, often the food itself is low quality, and it is almost never what anyone would call "breakfast food." Honestly, it can be a pretty dreary affair. No one is particularly overjoyed to be there. Considering what the very part-time chef has to work with, it's kind of amazing that the food is ever better than simply edible, but it can still be pretty so-so.

Let's just say it isn't exactly going to lift anyone's spirits.

So, as a test case, this Sunday we wanted to take out all the stops and provide breakfast for our guests, with the goal of having real breakfast every Sunday. With the help of a member or two, a good guy named Adam who is passionate about serving those in need, a big donation from out of state, and a lot of work by some free range Gunnison, Colorado chickens, we were able to serve 170 meals of scrambled eggs, french toast, cheesy potatoes, and biscuits and gravy, with coffee, orange juice, milk, cookies, syrup, and ketchup on the side.

Our guests raved about the meal. I've been helping coordinate SMP for a few months now and I've never heard anyone say, "great breakfast." We get thank-yous. But today not only did I hear "thank you," I also heard, "That was the best breakfast I've had... ever," and "My favorite breakfast is the 'big breakfast' at McDonalds, but this blows that out of the water," and "I think I'm in a food coma," and "Gimme some more a them eggs, bro," just to quote a few. Simply by providing breakfast foods, coffee, and orange juice the spirit of the place lifted, conversations became livelier, the space filled with joy and noise from everyone talking and laughing.

It's amazing what a few (28 dozen) eggs can do.

We didn't solve any of the problems of homelessness that our guests deal with each day, but we did create a safe space for a few hours, filled bellies, lifted spirits, and—I hope—saw each guest as an individual loved by the divine, so they might feel love that they so rarely feel when objectified in the eyes of the world as the poor, dispossessed, unwashed, and unwanted. It is a start, at the very least. And it is also our end.