Sunday, October 11, 2015

Lessons From My Horse, Part 2

What do you do with grief, any grief, perhaps, but more so a really traumatic grief, the kind that didn’t happen at the right time or in the right order, in its proper place?  Those who have never faced this kind of grief don’t have the ability to fully comprehend it.  Those who have are not experts in it.  They only know where they’ve been and where they are.  And even that sometimes feels elusive.  Loss has existed for as long as the world has, certainly longer than humanity has, and yet in societies where we’ve managed to substantially cut our number and types of losses, we’ve also managed to lose our understanding and handling of grief.  We so easily forget.  

Traumatic grief changes people.  It changes every part of who you are.  You fear things you didn’t used to fear.  You don’t fear things you once did.  You have more patience for certain things and less patience for others.  You care differently, see differently, feel differently, experience everything differently.  And you want every person you know and every new person you meet to know all this, to know what happened, to know your life was once one way and is now another, to know that what they see is so little compared to the strange, inexplicable depth beneath that, to know that this is important to you.  But you don’t want to say it, because that doesn’t naturally come up in conversation.  And you want it to naturally come up.  You want it so badly.  You want to be able to say to that new friend, that new co-worker, that new boss, that you got up this morning feeling happy and content about the sunrise and hot tea, and excited about new things at work and that you’re also afraid and sad and basically going crazy inside, and all that feels normal to you.  Because it is normal now.  Because we humans can live in the middle of greater paradox than we think we can.  And because if it ever happens to them, you want them to know they won’t be alone.

Grief is strange.  We can go along for weeks, months, maybe years just living our lives, when one thing that has happened a hundred times, hits a different button than usual and knocks us to the floor, making us feel little different than we did days after the original tragedy.  Someone named that experience for me.  She called them grief attacks.  They show up when they feel like it and don’t bother consulting your schedule first, maybe even forcing you to email your new boss and explain why you can’t function like normal and have to take the day off.  Or maybe not.  But probably.  And you hope she can handle with care the burden that has just been unwittingly handed to her, because not everyone can.

In these dark moments, unplanned and unexpected, the ones where you feel the most out of control, your brain seems to halt all activity of normalcy while simultaneously racing through all your life experiences and relationships desperately searching for the one thing that will make you feel normal again, the thing that will give you back your sanity.  It is no surprise that some people land on destructive behavior.  Sometimes, I’m surprised more don’t.  For some of us, maybe many, the spinning wheel of possibilities slows to a stop not on family or friends, but, interestingly, on our animal companions.  

For many people, in a desperate search for normalcy, we discover no one gives us that better than our animals do.  Our pets are uncomplicated: they eat and they sleep on the same schedule every day, and they love you so long as you keep it that way and maybe even if you don’t.  They don’t ask questions.  They don’t wonder if they’re saying or doing the right things.  They’re not afraid of your loss and your grief, and most of all, they don’t look at you differently for the rest of their lives.  You existing and loving them and feeding them on time is the only criteria they need.  In the kindest way, our animals remind us that time keeps on ticking and the world goes on.  The elderly Ms. Threadgoode remarks in Fried Green Tomatoes, “A heart can be broken, but it keeps on a-beatin’ just the same.”  Sometimes the only heartbeat that keeps us moving is the one we feel when our animals lean up against us.

Last week, I was surprised by grief and had to leave work.  I sent the truth to my boss and a short email to everyone else explaining nothing and saying I wasn’t feeling well and just packed up and left, with tunnel vision, speaking to no one.  It took everything I had to get out while looking like I was at ease, even though I couldn’t get enough air and the world was pressing in around me.  I got in my car and headed out to the one place that gave me peace.  I went to see my horse.  

When I got out of my car and called out her name, her ears perked forward and she looked up and walked toward the fence.  In that moment, when just minutes ago the world seemed crazy and foreign, there is nothing better than a thousand pound animal, in a pasture full of distractions, responding to your voice.

Stella was the first place I went after receiving the news about my sister and nieces; she was my solace in the weeks following, and she brings me peace, even now, when I need it most.  When I walk her in circles and work to get her hind feet moving, she is not wondering how I’m getting by.  As I guide her through serpentines, she is not distracted by my grief.  More curiously, neither am I, because in that moment, I’m focused on what she’s doing and she’s focused on what I’m asking and the world beyond us is of no concern to either of us.  For that hour, all is right and uncomplicated.

What do we do with our grief?  When you’re spending time with the four-legged friends you love, nothing, I suppose.  We don’t have to do anything with it.  As I sat observing a nearby horse clinic today, the trainer encouraged the only pre-teen rider there and said to her, “As you grow older, you’ll discover that things will let you down in this world.  It is true.  It will happen at some point, and it will happen a lot, but your horse--your horse will never let you down.  Not ever.”  Animal companions are consistent and unwavering when all else is muddy and uncertain. They’ll sit with you.  They’ll walk with you.  They won’t ask you awkward questions, and they’ll love you today no differently than they did yesterday.  Because no matter how different you feel and how your heart breaks, their heart keeps on a-beatin’ just the same, and it’ll beat for you until yours is strong enough to start again.  No questions asked.  

Friday, June 27, 2014

Lessons From My Horse, Part 1

So I have this horse. She doesn’t actually belong to me, but I see her all the time, and I'm pretty sure I love her more than anyone else, and I hope someday she gets to be mine.

Working with a horse has been a frustrating, eye-opening, and remarkably rewarding experience. Horses are powerful. They can break your bones or kill you if you're flippant or foolish around them. And yet if you know how to ask, they will do anything for you. They will trust you, and the trust of a horse is no after thought.  It is a trust that says, I know I will not die as long as you’re here

Training a horse especially when you've never trained one before, is challenging for a very specific reason. The horse can't speak. She can't understand English. And I can't speak horse. And yet, horses can be taught to do the most incredible things. Why? Because horses can learn from non verbals. In fact, that's the only way to teach them. And they learn surprisingly fast. They learn so fast, that you better know what you're doing before you ask them to do it or you could end up teaching something you have to un-teach and fix at a later date.  Like, next week when you realize you didn’t mean what you taught.  Or is it that you didn’t teach what you meant? 

Working with a horse has taught me a lot about action. I can stand in the middle of the round pen and look at my horse and say, "Okay, it's time to lunge,” (which means exercising on a lead rope in a circle around the trainer) and she'll just stand there and look at me. But if I step to the right so I'm in line with her hip and simultaneously move my left hand, with the lead rope in it, out and point to the left, she'll instinctively start walking. I don't have to say a word. I may train her to understand the words "walk," "trot," "run," but she will only understand those words because they were connected to non verbals as she trained. 

Working with my horse has taught me that what I do matters a lot more than what I say and what I say MUST be connected to what I do, and I don't think this is any different than with people. The difference is, people can understand what I say and if I say something that is disconnected from what I am doing, they can judge me for it.  

In a place and time where people throw words around like healing balm and gyuto knives all at once, perhaps we would do well to hold our tongue and consider a different way of understanding one another.  I think it would do all church leaders some good to connect with someone who truly understands the equine species and learn a little of what it means to work with a horse. Who knows? It just might do wonders for the church. Maybe even miracles.

Horses are incredibly forgiving.  They fill in places we're not capable of filling ourselves.
--Buck Brannaman

Sunday, March 2, 2014

I lost my sister and two sweet little nieces on Friday when the fifth wheel they were living in caught fire early in the morning.  They were so loved and are so missed.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The dilemma of Quaker time

Quakers have a lot of terminology that can be overwhelming to convinced Quakers.  It can be daunting even for birthright Quakers.1  See what I mean?  We have our own terms for all kinds of things such as the Inner Light, after the manner of Friends, weighty Friend, open worship, recording, meeting house, and so many others, not to mention our many acronyms.  But a new term was introduced to me this week that I really like.  After one of the evening services at yearly meeting this week, the young adults invited the board of elders to come and listen to a great discussion that didn’t end until nearly midnight.  I was tired and still had to drive the forty minutes back to Forest Grove on entirely unlit backroads with someone else’s car.  On my way out, I mentioned to a friend to say a little prayer for safety and he responded, “Take your time--Quaker time.”  Immediately understanding the joke, I laughed.  But as I thought about it more, I considered the pithiness of that phrase, and I have decided it’s time to introduce this term into the lexicon of Quaker vocabulary.

Quaker time means taking the time you need to do something well and without unnecessary rush.    More like the kairos of time versus the kronos, to use old Greek examples.  In short, and slightly in jest, it means we take a long time to make decisions.  Indeed, one of my friends earlier this week compared Quaker decision making to the Ents of Lord of the Rings lore.  I had to agree and responded, “That is so true!” And then went on to quote Lord of the Rings because it’s always worth lingering on for just a little bit longer.

In Quaker tradition, we don’t vote on church decisions.  Church-wide decisions, local or yearly meeting level, are reached by consensus.2  This is no longer the case for all Quakers today, but it is still the way of doing business for many yearly meetings, including mine.

Consensus takes time.  Yearly Meeting annual sessions meet for a collective five days with the business meeting gathering for three hours a day on all but one of those days.  Easier decisions can be made over a course of a few days.  Harder decisions, ones with great potential to breed divisiveness, discord, damaging conflict and that come with an element of fear are approached lightly and with great deliberation before even reaching the floor of the business meeting.  These discussions can take years.  Sometimes the process does not feel so unlike the gathering of the Ents, and those who are unaccustomed to it, may feel much like the young hobbits desperate for the Ents to make a decision to fight.  “Our friends are out there!” they cry to Treebeard.  They need our help!  They can not fight this war on their own.”  Yet, Treebeard responds, “But you must understand, young hobbit, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish, and we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.”  That is not so unlike the Quaker passage of time.  It takes a long time to say things in Quaker-speak.  

And yet, some of these discussions come with a paradox, a sense of urgency, and the great quandary is discerning when to be urgent and when to be slow.  The paradox arrives when the sense of urgency and the need to be slow simultaneously hold incomparably dire importance.

This year, my yearly meeting has come to discover that we as a whole are not in unity over our feelings and understanding around homosexuality.  It was known that one church in particular held a different view than our conservative Faith and Practice statement, but that was about it until the conversation was broken wide open last year due to an outside concern from a mixed group of Quakers and non-Quakers.  When that portion of our Faith and Practice was brought to the floor of the business meeting this year, we discovered great disunity throughout our yearly meeting and recognized a need to have much longer conversations about it, especially with our local meetings.3  Because we don’t want a divide to happen, and because we recognize that God values time, too, that minds can’t be pushed to change, we know time is our only option.

Yet, equally paramount is the reality of the lives of gay children.  As a gay friend/Friend, who both stupidly and very bravely and wisely attended the sessions this year, stated in that above mentioned young adult discussion, children are dying at an alarming rate.  They are harassed, beaten up, disregarded, thrown out of their own homes, and given the absolute opposite of the love of Jesus.  With no where left to feel any sense of goodness about themselves, they take their lives.  And the worst contributor to this is the Church.

And so here Northwest Yearly Meeting sits, as with so many of the big questions in life, in a paradox.  We also rest, somewhat precariously, on the edge of a precipice we can’t yet see out over, wondering what we can offer to our youth, perhaps unaware of just how much our youth will end up offering us in this discussion as the years pass through.  

Many of us Christians are baffled by the strange story of Jesus’ progressive healing of the blind man, when it seemed to take him multiple times to accurately sharpen the man’s vision.  But that story carried a new kind of weight for me this week, a descriptive power I had never seen before.  Change and shift in thoughts and ideas don’t happen suddenly.  Life is constantly evolving; our thought processes are not exempt.  Like this man’s sight, clarity in our understanding of faith and issues comes slowly as we gather more information and stories so as to, as one of my seminary professors once said, give the Holy Spirit more to work with.  When a sizable group of people with differing opinions come together and desire to reach consensus on an issue, we have to recognize the time it will take for true clarity to come, and we have to be prepared to see in ways we never could have guessed.  

And yet, on an issue as urgent as the one before us, I am left holding a morass of questions.  We discuss homosexuality as an issue as if it can be shelved at inconvenient times, put on hold while we eat dinner and go to work.  But the LGBTQ community is more than an issue; it’s people.  It’s real human lives, and so many of them are hanging in the balance desperately wishing that someone would simply love them.  How many more children will die during the lengthy amount of time--years, I assume--it will take to begin making significant movement in this area as a yearly meeting?  But then how many lives would be lost if we rushed a decision and forced a gulf to open up between our churches and people?  Patience is a virtue, we know.  Yet when children are dying from utter despair, patience feels more like a necessary evil.  

It does, indeed, take a long time to say what needs to be said and to make decisions in the Quaker world.  We try our best not to do either unless we believe they are worth doing.  But we can’t deny the cries from those who continue to tell us their friends are out there, that they cannot fight this on their own.  What does it look like to be faithful to the Holy Spirit’s leading for the Northwest Yearly Meeting?  It’s hard to say.  Time will tell.  Quaker time.

1. A convinced Quaker is one who came into the Quaker church from elsewhere and chose to become Quaker.  A birthright Quaker is one who is born into the Quaker tradition. 

2.  Consensus doesn’t mean everyone agrees wholeheartedly with a decision.  It means all are given the chance to be heard, the holy spirit is given the time to speak, and a general trust is built around the community and the subject at hand so that if an agreement is reached to approve an action and there are still a few dissenters, these dissenters have come to trust the community even if they, themselves, do not agree.  If they strongly disagree, they have permission to put their names on the official minute stating so.

3. individual churches

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fear Nothing

Psalm 46

God is our refuge and our strength,
who from of old has helped us in our distress.
Therefore we fear nothing--
even if the earth should open up in front of us
and mountains plunge into the depths of the sea,
even if the earth’s waters rage and foam
and the mountains tumble with its heaving.

There’s a river whose streams 
gladden the city of God,
the holy dwelling of the Most High.
God is in its midst, it will never fall--
God will help it at daybreak.
Though nations are in turmoil and empires crumble,
God’s voice resounds, and it melts the earth.

YHWH Sabaoth is with us--
our stronghold is the God of Israel!

Come, see what YHWH has done--
God makes the earth bounteous!
God has put an end to war,
from one end of the earth to the other,
breaking bows, splintering spears,
and setting chariots on fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God!
I will be exalted among the nations;
I will be exalted upon the earth.”

YHWH Sabaoth is with us--
our stronghold is the God of Israel!

The Inclusive Bible

Something in this psalm makes my heart stop.  There is a breathtaking power in the truth conveyed, a potency in the words themselves.  A God who from of old has helped us in our distress.  Therefore we fear nothing.  We. Fear. Nothing.  

I have a great faith in God.  I believe in miracles.  I believe God still heals and raises people from the dead.  I believe a lot of things to be true about God.  I believe, in the very depths of my heart, that God loves me, and I really do believe there is nothing so awful I can do that will change that.    But these psalmist’s words convict me, because in reality I fear a lot of things.  I fear being misunderstood.  I fear people thinking I’m stupid.  I fear riding my bike to church a couple towns over because there is a particularly unsafe stretch of road between here and there, and so I don’t go, because I can’t afford the bus.  I fear that I will not serve the children I work with to the best of their ability and I will end up with a missed opportunity that has no do-over option.  In essence, I fear the lack of perfection and guarantees.  

And yet, even if the earth should open up in front of us and mountains plunge into the depths of the sea, we fear nothing.  Even if the earth’s waters rage and foam and the mountains tumble with its heaving, we fear nothing.  I look into my fears and then I look at this psalm.  I place these two side by side and I see my fears withering into an insignificant dust.  I suppose this is the power of scripture.  In the city of God, the dwelling of the Most High, through which a river flows, God is in its midst, it will never fall--God will help it at daybreak.  The New Revised Standard reads, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved,” recalling, for me, Maya Angelou’s words in “Our Grandmothers,” where the black women of old declare, “We shall not, we shall not be moved.” Though nations are in turmoil and empires crumble, God’s voice resounds, and it melts the earth. Infused with the Holy Spirit, scripture contains great power.  I’m not sure how I forget that sometimes.

There are a lot of things I know about God, but there are fewer things I understand--not cognitively, but understand in the depths of my soul where it soaks into the roots of my faith and carries me into a deeper kind of knowledge and a richer day.  That kind of understanding.  Fear is a strange thing.  Not the great fears which we ought to be wary of, but that nagging worry that can take the joy from everyday moments.  I am not a fear ridden person, but my desire to not fail others can on occasion be paralyzing, those times when I seem to forget there is a God whose voice melts the earth, because of whom I need have no fear.  But in those moments when I remember to be still and know that God is God, I see my fears for what they really are: lies.  And weak lies at that. 

We live in a culture that tells us to conquer our fears, to let them go, to free ourselves of them.  The church tends to be no different.  But fear has a way of creeping up on you when your defenses are down.  I may think I’ve set it down, but it follows me anyway, sometimes because I think I’ve conquered them.  And yet, when I hold it up to the truth of scripture, it disintegrates.  Its weak foundation and lack of roots is exposed.  Up against this psalm, fear is as threatening as a mouse to a wildcat, and so I’m thinking what if this week, instead of trying to put down my fear, to leave it somewhere else, I take the scripture with me.  I will hold it in my heart, and I will be still.  In the light of the Holy Spirit, fear is powerless.  In a context that has outlived us all, a truth that has proven more real and constant than the air we breathe, fear has no home.  Fear can try it’s hardest, but we shall not, we shall not be moved.

Friday, July 19, 2013


Every year, the evangelical Friends churches of the northwest come together in a mass of meetings, discussions, meals, and worship services for one week in July.*  Each year that I’m able to go, I get really excited, as in REALLY excited.  It is, in fact, ridiculous. Firstly, I love coming back to my alma mater, which I wasn’t particularly enraptured by when I left with my cap and gown in 2003.  For another, I am always taken by the quaintness of this little town, even though on any other week I would never actually want to live there again.  But I'll take it all, because really, at its heart, it's an annual family reunion, and I can not wait to see the people I dearly love. 

I have not lived in a Quaker community since 2008.  Before that, I had never spent extensive time outside of one.  I went to a Quaker church every Sunday from the time I was a week old.  I didn’t miss a year of camp and even volunteered as an adult.  I participated in Bible quizzing, albeit rather lazily.  I went to a Quaker university and then a Quaker seminary.  Once college started and I lived conveniently in Quaker HQ (what non Quakers call Newberg), I attended the yearly meeting annual sessions and loved them, even the business meetings.  I couldn’t get enough. I even participated in the Faith and Practice committee, which I really enjoyed (who wouldn’t enjoy working with Tom Stave??). And then in August of 2008, I left for a different seminary.  I left all the way to Kentucky and landed in a nest of Wesleyans and Southerners and even some Texans.  

The move was challenging, excruciating, eye-opening, amazing, and life-altering.  It was vital that I spend time in a different world.  My perspective on the church broadened significantly.  I saw a variety of ordination processes, experienced nuanced and bold differences in theology, witnessed great challenges in leadership structure and hierarchy.  And I discovered with an inarguable certainty that I am Quaker down to the very roots of my soul.  I have soaked it into my very being.  It will always be a part of who I am and the lens through which I see and know God.  

These days, I live in a small town outside of Portland that does not have a Friends church. Without a car or money for bus fare, my little Quaker soul is still missing that community, so maybe it’s not quite so odd that I get a bit euphoric over the coming of the Yearly Meeting.  That’s not to say I’m not realistic about expectations.  I have been in the yearly meeting all of my nearly 32 years of life.  I have seen life-giving discussions and confirmations, and I have witnessed things that beg for forgiveness.  As always with family, it is the good, the bad, and the ugly, but on the whole, it is beautiful and curious and forgiving and welcoming.  For me, it is home.

*A couple notes of clarification for my non Quaker friends: 
1. Our Yearly Meeting is the equivalent of most denominations’ understanding of a Conference.  Everyone is invited to the annual sessions, though, not just the official church leadership. 
2. The term Friends and Quakers mean the same thing; I use them interchangeably. 
3. Quakers don’t have a thick, bound copy of “The Book of Discipline” like the United Methodists.  Historically, Quakers didn’t approve of heavy-set doctrine, so each yearly meeting creates its own Faith and Practice document (ours is around 90 or so pages) which remains in constant revision, as we don’t believe such things are set in stone.

Friday, April 19, 2013

With Liberty and Justice for All

On the news right now is the capture of suspect number two of the Boston Marathon bombing that happened earlier this week.  I’m watching my Facebook page slowly fill up with statuses about this currently live event, and it has gotten me thinking.  Thinking about America, thinking about justice, thinking about us.

Since 9/11/2001, patriotism has been hijacked by a sliver of our population and become narrowly defined.  If you are pro-specific things and anti-specific things, you are patriotic.  I am not these things, so I’ve been led to believe I must be unpatriotic.  And you know what?  I’d would like to say to those sliver of folks, “You’re wrong.”

I don’t explicitly talk much about my politics, but I will make an exception.  I am a pacifist.  I am an evangelical Quaker and hold an orthodox understanding of Jesus Christ.  I believe gay people have every governmental right to be married the same as we heterosexual folks.  I hold to a more socialist idea of economics.  I really do not like capitalism as it is practiced here (but I find great value in the free-market system).  I have really complicated views about abortion that can’t be solved with a yes or no vote.  I generally detest big business.  I believe all these things, and I am an American, 100%.

Let me tell you what I love about America:

  1. I love that I can vote as a woman, and I love that I don’t fear for my life on voting day.  In fact, I really enjoy the ability to vote by mail in my state, because I’m lazy that way.
  2. I have the constitutional right--as in, it’s written IN THE CONSTITUTION of my country--to practice my religion without fear of abduction, torture, or death, and to not have that religion dictated by the government.  It is not lost on me how precious that freedom is.
  3. I can speak what I believe about an idea and authorities won’t come to my door and arrest me.  Freedom of Speech is sometimes misused, but it is a wonderful thing, regardless.
  4. Especially important, I can outright disagree with my government and I have the constitutional right to do that, too.
  5. As a woman, I am a full citizen of my country.  I have the legal right to drive, work, vote, speak out in public, disagree with men, have sex without being married (even if I don’t choose to partake in that right), and dress how I choose.
  6. I generally feel safe when I walk out my door.
  7. I am so thankful for programs like AmeriCorps which was the only place that gave me employment that will actually get me somewhere in life and that is really fun all at the same time.
  8. I believe, as Americans, if we actually actively joined together, we really could make a difference in our government.  The problem if our rich, power-hungry congress is only there because we the people keep letting them back in.
  9. I do not have to testify against myself in a court of law. AMAZING (and something I hope I never have to use).
  10. My justice system ALWAYS presumes innocence, even when the media presumes guilt.

As I watch the news unfold, and I read the responses, I want to reiterate that last point.  We have become a country that assumes people are guilty because the media tells the story that way, because the authorities call them “suspects.”  But we are also a country of people who have every ability to think for ourselves.  What happened in Boston was a grave tragedy, and whoever did it, be this young man and his brother or someone else, is a coward, but our justice system was set up as it is for a reason and our justice system has something to say us.  Human life matters--all of it.  If we are going to decide to throw someone’s life away, we better do it carefully and with great trepidation.  There better be cause without a reasonable doubt.  

Our justice system is not perfect and at times is even corrupt.  But I choose to believe in it nonetheless because I believe this justice system still, for the most part, seeks truth.  Because of this, I still choose to believe people are innocent until proven guilty and to trust the ultimate verdict reached.  Maybe this idea has almost faded into oblivion.  Perhaps in our biased and untrusting world, it is outdated, but I have decided to stand by it.  Because if I can't believe this to be true, then I can't believe anything good about America.  And I simply refuse to do that.