Hope That Demands Presence

This post was aided (as all of them are) by many sources and many words of definition, inspiration, clarity. Chief among them are Ta-Nehisi Coates, especially his book Between the World and Me, Austin Channing Brown (check out her website), and Sean Palmer (a great friend and wise author; go to his website, too). As I have prayed and meditated over which direction my life will take this year, these three authors informed me tremendously and I wanted to be sure and thank them (be sure and check out their websites and social media feeds–they are all passionate and informative).

I have struggled to form my word for 2017. The past few years, I have done words instead of resolutions (thank you for this post, Sean Palmer). This year, I had decided I was going to choose one word and from that identify different areas to develop that word more fully.

Then 2016 happened. And I just felt weary. I almost felt as if nothing truly mattered anymore. It was an overwhelming sense of despair. And then I started reading. I started listening. I started praying. And I came to a realization that led me to my word(s) for 2017.

Now is the time to stand firm. Now is the time to work hard. Now is the time to have hope.

Hope that demands presence.

HOPE. I will cling to the hope that I have. The hope that is grounded primarily in Jesus.

There are a number of reasons to feel despair. But all of those reasons are temporary. I have hope that, as Jonathan Martin has written, “God is at work not in the world as it should be but in the world that actually is.” Less than a month ago, we observed the Christian season of Advent—light coming into a dark world. There is a lot of darkness. I acknowledge it. I need to be more aware of it. I need to hear more from the people who are suffering. But the light is stronger than the dark. All of the events and circumstances that are legitimate causes for concern will not bury my hope. For I know there is something greater.

And I have to be honest: I am able to have hope in my current cultural context because of the privilege I have. I have a responsibility to use my voice in places where it will be heard. I have a responsibility to be a voice for people who are cast aside. I have a responsibility to amplify the voices of the people speaking about their experiences and sharing their wisdom. I have a responsibility to make sure I don’t take over, but learn to walk alongside.

DEMANDS. If I have hope that things are going to get better then I must get busy.

Hope is not a flighty feeling of wishing for things to get better. Hope is not a forlorn longing for days gone by when the world was a better place. Hope requires action.

I have hope that people can cross ethnic and class boundaries and form true relationship. So I need to be seeking to cultivate those relationships in my life.

I have hope that people can be treated fairly regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. So I need to be advocating for them and calling my elected officials to vote against discriminatory legislation. I need to be setting an example in my church and my community of how to be loving and welcoming.

I have hope that refugees will be welcomed to our country as they flee theirs at great risk. So I need to be connecting with agencies that promote the well-being of all people regardless of where they come from.

I have hope this world can be a better place. So I better be doing everything I am able to do to make sure that happens.

PRESENCE. I will be present. I will keep my eyes and ears open. I will listen.

Presence takes many forms. In this day and technological age, part of presence means putting my phone down, closing my laptop lid, and turning the TV off so that I can look a person in the eye as they speak to me.

Presence means showing up. To city council meetings and volunteer sign-up drives and candlelight vigils and marches and the ballot box and my local church and the neighborhood clean-up event and anything else that affords me the opportunity to speak and to serve.

Presence means conversations over coffee or at lunch and dinner tables with people who have different opinions and ideas as me. It means that I am willing to listen as well willing to speak. It means I will go out of my way to engage with people face to face and not via social media.

Presence means I will maintain my sobriety—not the absence of alcohol and drugs, but the practice of putting principles before personalities.

Presence means practicing spiritual disciplines: praying, sitting in silence, studying, worshipping, even fasting.

I will be present as much as I am able. I will not run. I will not hide. I will not give up. I will, in the words of President Obama, show up, dive in, and persevere.

My word for 2017 is hope that demands presence. I will need you to hold me accountable. Because I know some days will be easier than others. So let’s work together.

When Your Childhood Dies

I still remember listening to Purple Rain on cassette tape. When Doves Cry will always be one of my favorite songs. When Stevie Nicks sang a tribute to Prince at her recent concert in Dallas, I was surprised at how much I was moved. (And for those of you who know me, I realize me being moved to tears should come as no surprise.)

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I also remember having a childhood crush on Carrie Fisher. Well, the crush was more realistically on Princess Leia, but Carrie brought her to life. Although as an adult I have appreciated her advocacy regarding mental health and addiction issues, I always thought of her first as a strong female character.

One night during high school, I was falling asleep with the radio on. I heard the words, “Ground control to Major Tom,” for the hundredth time, but really listened and paid attention for the first time. I was amazed at the way David Bowie was able to tell such a gripping and telling story in such a short time.

When a celebrity dies, a little piece of us dies with them. As humans, we seem to have this impression that the memories, and memory-makers, of our youth are somehow immortal. Each loss is a reminder of our own mortality. Each loss is a reminder that we are no longer that 8 year child going to theater to see Return of the Jedi; we are no longer that middle schooler dancing to Careless Whisper; we are no longer that young adult who appreciates the old musicals and still dances along to all the songs in Singing in the Rain.

As the shining stars of our youth go dim, a little piece of us darkens along with them.

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Two people from my church family passed away this past week. They were both kind and gentle people. I was not particularly close to either one, but have many mutual friends. One of them is a grandfather to some of the children in the youth group I volunteer with. As those families gather for funerals on the same week most of us celebrated Christmas, there is a hurt, a loss, that will forever change those who mourn.

When people that we know die, it creates an emptiness. Something, someone, we are familiar with is no longer physically present. Even simple things like regular greetings at church or occasionally bumping into one another at the grocery store aren’t going to happen anymore. Those events we took for granted because we always banked on “next time” now take on a new meaning.

As the people we know die, a little piece of us is lost and we are forever different.

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When it comes to celebrity deaths, 2016 has been a terrible year. Just this week has seen three stars (two of them mother and daughter) pass away. People have been mourning the loss of their childhood heroes from Severus Snape to Carol Brady; their sports idols from Muhammad Ali to Arnold Palmer; their musical angels from Merle Haggard to Leonard Cohen; their historical giants from Elie Wiesel to John Glenn.

It seems that each week has brought a new spotlight to one of those childhood memories; those thoughts of days gone by. And now, the person associated with the memory is gone. And we mourn. Maybe not so much because we knew them, most of us never get a chance to meet the celebrities we adore, but because of what they unknowingly meant to us.

At the same time, all of us have endured the loss of loved ones throughout the year. And we are navigating through the pain that brings.

In addition to that, there are thousands of others who have died this year that we know nothing about. We never knew them. They never made the news. They passed on and our lives kept moving as if nothing happened.

And all of that is okay. Because each loss—whether of a close friend or a person associated with a memory—brings an end to part of ourselves. This isn’t selfish. This is a gift we have received. We have been granted…something: a token of kindness, a refuge through song or stage, inspiration to face insurmountable odds, a relationship. Because we have been given these gifts, when the giver leaves, we mourn.

So as this calendar year draws to a close, mourn. Be sad for the parts of your younger days that you have lost. But also be grateful. Be grateful that you were the recipient of a gift that only you can fully understand.

Tomorrow, I will gather with other mourners and extend my sympathies to a husband who is burying his wife; a daughter who is burying her mother. I will mourn. Yet I will also be grateful as I continue reading stories of this person’s students who remember her fondly; whose lives have forever been shaped by the love she poured into them.

We lost bits of ourselves throughout this year, but we are who we are because of the gifts we have been given. So let us grieve. But let us also be thankful that we have reason to grieve.

When Your Christmas Isn’t Merry

So there has already been a time when I feel like my life was falling apart. And I wrote about it. And I asked for prayers about it. And I went to meetings about it. And I found some clarity and acceptance about it.

So why do I circle back around to feeling this way again? Why can’t this be resolved?

This coming February marks two years since I fell into a mild depression. I like to call it a funk because that makes it seem less serious.

This coming Sunday marks the (observed) anniversary of the arrival of our Savior bringing joy into this world.

So why does the funk outweigh the joy?

I think one of the biggest challenges we face in dealing with our lives is that we are not living a television show. We are so used to resolutions. We are so used to quick fixes.

But it isn’t just television culture that does this to us. We do it to ourselves. And to each other.

We spend so much time hiding what we are actually going through that people look at us and think we have it all together. And we look at them and think they have it all together. And the end result is instead of sharing our hurts and struggles with one another we have this need to show one another how put together we are.

And then we wake up in a funk the week before Christmas and can’t figure out why.

Because, after all, what is Christmas except a momentary celebration with lights, wrapping paper, carols, movies, and an extra church service or two? We get a couple extra days off of work or school and spend much of that time complaining that we are bored or surrounded by too many people.

But it is to that funk that Christmas specifically speaks. The message of Christmas is that life does indeed go on. And that means all the pain, all the struggle, all the frustration will still continue. That means there will still be sickness. There will still be death. There will still be broken relationships.

But into all of that, Jesus enters.

Are you hurting? He will hurt with you.

Are you doubting? He will listen to your questions with no judgment.

Are you lonely? He wants to comfort you.

Have his followers messed you up? He will not pull any punches with them.

Are you so lost that you think he doesn’t care about you? He still comes. Every day. Because he loves you.

So for the next few days, my funk will intermingle with my joy. I will have doubts, questions, and fears. And I will sing songs loudly with a smile on my face. I will wonder why things cannot get any better. And I will feel joy when family members get excited about their presents. I will feel sorrow when I think about the people who are not celebrating with us this year. And I will feel a sense of awe and wonder as I gather to worship the Savior.

My funk may or may not go away. And even if it does, it is likely to come back. But that is okay. Because I am not walking through it alone. So my Christmas may not be as merry as it could be.

But it will still be the source of my joy.

Hoping to Hope

I so desperately want to hope.

I hope for peace.

I hope for being able to provide for my family.

I hope to remain sober another day.

I hope for people to quit being stupid.

I hope for pain and suffering to end.

I hope for answers.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

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One of the things I heard early on at AA meetings was, “You don’t have to believe; you just need to believe that we believe.” Early on in AA’s history, its members realized that not everyone who started the journey of sobriety believed in a Higher Power. Instead of making belief a prerequisite for attending, they told people to come. The message was, “If you want to be sober, come.” They knew the purpose of AA was sobriety so they shared it with everyone regardless of belief.

What people need when they try to live a sober life is hope. They need to know that today can be better than yesterday. I need to believe that. I need to have that hope.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

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On the Christian calendar, this is the season of Advent. It is the time of preparation for the coming of Jesus. It is a time of waiting, a time of longing. It is a four week season acknowledging the darkness of the world while hoping for the light that is to come into that darkness.

And this first week is supposed to be a week of hope.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

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This is supposed to be a great time of year. So many decorations. So many lights. So many songs. So many movies. So many great parties. So many times of worship and fellowship.

But it does not feel great. I am nervous. I am unsettled. I am angry. I am feeling inadequate. I am bordering on despair. How can the world be the way it is today? How can all the things that have happened still happen in our world? How can there be so much hate? So much violence? So much close-mindedness?

I want so badly to be hopeful and believe that the world can be made right.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

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The hope of Advent is that light is coming into the darkness.

It means we are in the darkness. It means we may not be able to see any light. It means we may be overwhelmed by dark.

The Light is coming.

But some days, I have to hope to hope.

Your Name Is Dulcinea

Over the weekend, I was able to see a production of Man of La Mancha. It is a powerful story based on the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. While there are several layers to the story, the main plot revolves around Don Quixote’s love and admiration for the woman he calls Dulcinea. When Don Quixote sees Dulcinea he knows he has found the perfect woman of virtue and beauty. She has done and can do no wrong.

The only problem is that Dulcinea is actually named Aldonza, and instead of being a virtuous woman she is a tavern wench. She can see nothing beautiful in herself or in her life. Throughout the play, Don Quixote continues to call her Dulcinea and speaks to her of her beauty and worth. And throughout the play, Aldonza continues to argue with him and tell him that he is unable to see the truth.

Near the end of the play, she boldly declares that she is and always will be Aldonza. Yet shortly after that, she is at the bedside of Don Quixote as he takes his last breath. When his companion, Sancho, looks at the woman on the other side of the bed, he calls her Aldonza. Then she stands up and declares, “My name is Dulcinea.”

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All of us have reason to doubt our own inner worth or beauty. All of us have seen the ugliness in our lives, because we are the ones who have done it. We have committed atrocities. We have spoken terrible words. We have given in because we were too weak to stand strong. We have relapsed. We have lied. We have cheated. We looked where we said we weren’t going to look.

And others have confirmed our opinions. We have been reminded by people in our lives of all of our failures. Sometimes, our parents have told us we will never amount to anything. Or they have derided our dreams as unrealistic or fanciful. Sometimes, our romantic partners have told us that we are just good enough and we are lucky they stick around. They cheat on us and tell us if only we were better it would not happen. Or they beat us and tell us if only we would act right. Sometimes, our friends remind us of all the mistakes we have made. Especially when we are trying not to make them anymore. They ask us if we think we are better than they are. They tell us we really won’t last doing the right thing. They tell us they will see us back again.

All of these messages pile up and crush us underneath their weight. No wonder so many of us think, and maybe even say out loud, that we will never be more than Aldonza.

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You are amazing. You may not know it, but you are. I know you have messed up. I know you have made some poor decisions. I know you have failed.

But that doesn’t matter to me. You are amazing.

You are beautiful. All those imperfections that you notice when you look in the mirror do not stand out to most people. I know you think they do, and that is hard to overcome.

But you are beautiful. You are amazing.

You are a hard worker. I see you trying to do the right thing in each situation every day. I know you are tired. I know you are overwhelmed. I know you do not have a 100% success rate.

But you are a hard worker. You are amazing.

You matter to me as a person. I know others have cut you down. I know others have told you they don’t like you. I know those messages hurt down deep. But your life is important. Who you are as a person is important. You have gifts and talents to offer that no one else can. You have knowledge and experience that no one else does. You have something I need. And hopefully, I have something you need. Let’s figure that out together. I know what other people have told you.

But you matter to me. You are amazing.

I have heard the stories. I have witnessed the mess. I have walked alongside some of you through the darkest moments of humanity. I know why you struggle. I know why you doubt. I know why you question.

I know why you think less of yourself. But remember this: You are amazing.

Your name is Dulcinea.