Hope, Creativity, and Art

by Rae Strozzo

In the midst of struggle, creativity is where hope finds vision.

We are in need of creativity and compassion in this moment.  This is a love letter to art and creativity that is so essential to all of us. Sometimes love is hard to see, and context is everything.  So first – the bad news.  

The current political moment seems so polarized and almost surreal.  We are at war now.  The U.S. is fighting itself as it has been since its creation but with a scary vigor. Fear seems to trump so much of what is good in the world if we spend our time on Facebook or watch more than 10 minutes of the news.  Shuffling through the lies to try and sort out what might be true feels like the new daily battle.  

The U.S. is fighting and exploiting other countries for the needs and greed of a few and the government and pop culture feeds it back to us as nationalism and what a “great nation” does for freedom.  All the while internally African American churches burn, Jewish community centers deal with bomb threats, and our Muslim brothers and sisters try to cope with threats, acts of violence and destroyed property.   Transpeople of color are murdered, gender expansive people commit and attempt suicide at astoundingly high rates, and lgbtq youth are homeless at much higher rates than their straight and cis gender peers.  

Walls are built to make and keep people illegal and separate, and families fear being broken up by immigration sweeps.  Our country incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and that is also to make a buck at the expense of those people’s lives and the lives of their families – most of whom are people of color.  Many of our neighbors grow up trapped in poverty and in systems of oppression that get labeled welfare, child protective services, and the mental health care system and so on, but work against the people they are created to help and against the people who work in those systems who want to help.  

Many ignore these problems and systems, and we step past the oppression because it is as subtle as “professionalism” in a workplace that really just says look/be whiter.  Or we say we are moving to a better neighborhood or sending our kids to better schools without seeing that those are whiter neighborhoods and whiter schools.  We live in “Right to Work States” that really say it’s okay not hire people who aren’t white enough, straight enough, gender conforming enough, Christian enough because as long as we don’t say it, we haven’t done anything wrong.   

Now is a time when a college education is so expensive only the most privileged can have it without the reality of mountainous debt and where public education is stifled by our system of lack. We live in a time where art and music struggle to find access points to most people’s lives and where the funding for those things are viewed as unimportant and stripped away.   We are taught to blame the poor rather than help. We are taught to walk away from people who don’t see things the way that we do. We are taught that tough love is about shunning people from families, from churches, from communities, so that somehow they will want to come back to us, but in the way we want them and not in the way that the universe created them.  

We use our limited understanding of creativity to control other people. We use our limited understanding of creativity for greed.  Succumbing to those same limits causes us to destroy our planet.  Our creativity is limited by what we think we know and it is wasted on anger, fear, destruction, and an illusion of control. We stifle vulnerability because we mistaken it for weakness rather than a place where new ideas are born.  We are strapped down by prejudice and are unable in those moments to be our fully connected and creative selves.  Empire wants us to die for lack of imagination. White supremacy wants us to hold it up out of that same lack of imagination.

That is a lot, especially acknowledging that it isn’t even close to giving voice to all of what is up in the world right now.

But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.  I firmly believe this.  All of these situations are things that were set in motion by people.  Logic suggests that if people created it, then people can also dismantle it. So there is hope. If we can be vulnerable enough to hope, then we have a place to start to vision something different, and that means creativity can come back to us and with its divine purpose intact.

Hope is where real creativity comes in.  Creativity, as it meets compassion, produces healing and love. This is where the arts are a healing force. Creativity as it is connected to love gives us the capacity for participation in beauty. It is the ability to turn the wound into a foundation for solidarity and into an olive branch for the “other side.”

As it is said, those with the capacity for great anger hold the capacity for great gentleness. So too those with great creative power towards greed hold that power for generosity. Those with great creative power toward destruction also hold great  power for creation. All of us hold creative power.  It is the link that bonds all of us to each other and to the universe. Creativity is what makes us human. It isn’t just a painter or a musician who holds creativity. Creativity is our mirror of the universe. It is our tether to the divine.  

Artists are a part of the priesthood of the creative and have a connection to the creative energy of the universe. When artists share their work, they open that connection to and establish that link for others.

The creative process and the artistic result aren’t just for the artist. Art is about completing a cycle and about helping other people and the culture it is a part of change, grow, and evolve. Art is a sacred reminder that we are ALL part of the creative flow of the universe. That is its purpose. Art reminds people that they have things to express and to express them. Creative expression is divine language no matter how it is spoken.

The teacher who makes a place for a struggling kid to learn because they take the time to rethink how they teach is a part of that energy.   The police officer who figures out how to stop violence without using it has that energy.  The activist who rallies support while seeing the other side as people and not just an opposing force is a part of this creative energy too.  

These are just examples. All of us have a link to what makes us our best selves. That is our link to the creative energy of the universe. We have been given this gift. But it isn’t about our minds and not even about our skill sets. It’s about our willingness to get vulnerable and listen to what our higher selves are telling us.  To listen to what our souls are telling us. To listen to what the universe is telling us.  

The path that is uniquely ours in life is lit by love and compassion as motive. Come to life with love and compassion and the steps to take become real.  The creativity to make things happen in our lives and in the lives of others becomes real.  Art is made in song, in paint, in photograph, and in every kind word, in every loving action. Listening to the creative energy of the universe and using that energy for kindness and compassion can heal a lifetime of wounds.  

True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art says, “Thinking goes as far as the mind understands. Then what? Art.”

Change for the good of all goes only as far as our ability to create compassion.  Then what? Art.

The Story of the Ashes

by Abigail Conley

I confess, I’m struggling with the idea of Lent this year. It’s likely the onslaught of news right now, from deportations to Jewish cemeteries desecrated. My early morning ritual of reading the news is no longer a pleasant way to wake up. If I’m completely honest, though, that’s why I need the ashes.

On Ash Wednesday, if I’m preaching, I tell the story of the ashes. Fresh palm leaves, dried palm leaves, and ashes are placed in a box. Kids are invited to come stand at the front so they can see, too.

It’s a terrible story and it’s a beautiful story, this story of the ashes. I’m sure you know it: the leaves were once green and beautiful, used to welcome the future king. We used them on Palm Sunday, shouting out, “Hosanna!” By the time Ash Wednesday rolls around, the leaves are faded, dry, brittle, and long past the time to be thrown out. In fact, one year, the landscapers did throw mine out before they could be burnt. Assuming the palms survive the landscapers, they are, indeed, burned just as trash is (or used to be). We put trash on our bodies to remind us of our mortality, and as a sign of repentance.

Yeah, the story I tell in worship is a bit more elaborate, but you get the gist. I reread what I use in worship to tell the Story of the Palms. The story’s simplicity and profundity get me every time. This year, though, a few lines that I wrote several years ago now hit especially hard: “But, God told Joel, as bad as this all is, it’s not too late. Come back to me—repent, is usually what we say. Repent, God says; you can always come back to me.”

It’s God’s truth, not mine. It’s God’s truth, “You can always come back.”

The hope in that truth remains deeper than any other I carry; it’s a truth we don’t experience in human relationships. I could sing a country song about “when you leave that way you can never go back,” but that would reveal more about my misused brain space than anything else. I do remember a children’s sermon by a lay leader in the church I was serving at the time. She took a hammer, some nails, and a piece of lumber. She talked about the things we do to hurt each other. With each thing she named, she hammered a nail into the wood.

Then, she talked about forgiveness, and pulled the nails out one by one. Of course, the holes were still there. Of course, even with forgiveness, the scars are still there.

Some days, I am so aware of the scars. Some of them I caused. Some of them I didn’t. All of them might end up a little more tender, a little less healed, than I thought they were.

There are scars from the break-up with the person I later ended up marrying. There are scars from the girl who commented on the size of my butt in high school. There are scars from the man who hit on me while his wife and baby were sleeping in a nearby room. There are scars from neglecting to give a woman food as she sat in my office crying about her poverty; I had forgotten there were bags of food for the food bank just outside the door.

How long could we sit and name our scars?

No matter how well adjusted we become, no matter how many hours of therapy we participate in, the scars remain. Maybe, in our human relationships, we have a few places we can always return to, but they’re not the same. Often, they’re not as good as we remember. It’s a lot like sleeping in your childhood bedroom when visiting over Christmas; the return isn’t as sweet as you hoped. In our broken humanity, we can never fully reclaim what we lost.

A deep hope remains: God gets it right. The tenderness of the scars disappears. The pain caused by what was broken dissipates. This forgiveness is deeper reaching, more thorough than we ever experience from each other.

That is the story of the palms: our lives are caught up in God, from beginning to end. And we can always return to God—no exceptions.

Grief and Hope

by Karen MacDonald

When I wrote my last blog entry a few months ago, I was “speechless.”  So many of us were reeling from the national election results.  We were heartbroken, appalled, angry.  We were/are grieving.

I have also known deep, gut-wrenching personal grief in my life with the disruption of a cherished relationship.  Much of my speech then was moaning and sobbing.  Thank Goodness, that dark period turned out to be a womb and not only a tomb.  While I looked over the brink into utter despair and lifelessness, I emerged with a spiritual awakening into the indescribable gift of Life.  

Valerie Kaur has prompted us to consider “…what if this darkness isn’t the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?  What if America is not dead but a country waiting to be born?”   To paraphrase her image, this chaotic, life-threatening period in our communal life could be a tomb and a womb—grief and hope.

The grief may include the death of optimism that missed the depth of fear and pain that always lurks below the surface of what appears to be social progress, that always paints the lives of those suppressed/oppressed, that always tinges the views of those afraid of losing position.

The hope is that we have today—Life has graced us with sun, Earth, breath once again.  We get to live, we are indeed from and of Life itself.  Regardless of how things turn out, the hope is in this question, “How do I want to express Life today?” —and in how we try to show our answer.

Reflections from Christmas Eve in Iraq – 2016

by Owen Chandler

The chapel is quiet right now. The only noise comes from the Black Hawks and Chinooks preparing to take off to destinations around Iraq. It is Christmas Eve. The rain is pouring and the ground is rapidly covered in a type of mud that is anything but festive. It bogs the mood of the camp, but the war effort does not slow. I have been here for every holiday this year. It never slows, not even in Taji, a place far from the thunder of the front lines.

In just a few short hours, the Australian Padre, fellow US chaplains and I will lead a candlelight service celebrating once again the birth of the Prince of Peace. We will sing traditional carols as military personnel and contractors from around the world pause to pay homage. It is a wonderful reminder. Men and women have looked to this event with hope-filled wonder for many years.

I think a great deal about peace these days. Whether it is Iraq or Syria, it is difficult for those who care not to watch with broken hearts. I feel fortunate to be part of an ongoing operation trying to do something about the tragedy we all see on our screens, but it never seems to be enough and it never seems to move fast enough. The destruction is indiscriminate and especially brutal to those most vulnerable: the elderly, women, and children.

As I unpack the candles for the service, I meditate on the last year. I’m getting ready to leave. The battles still rage to my north and probably will for some time to come. There is a certain guilt I cannot help but feel as I prepare to leave. I get to go home. I get to hug my wife and children and sleep in relative safety under the beautiful Tucson night sky. If I want, I do not have to even consider the war-torn events I am poised to leave. It is a strange luxury lost on most of our country. I am ill at ease with that reality. And so I wonder and pray, what will PEACE look like for this part of the world?

One of the officers at lunch recounted the story of the Christmas Truce from WWI. I googled it when I returned back to my office. The story perfectly illustrates how, during the weeks leading to Christmas, tragedy becomes the paradox of God’s grace. The story has the feel of myth. As it goes, roughly 100,000 British and German soldiers were involved in an unofficial cessation of hostility along the Western Front. The Germans placed candles on their trenches and on Christmas trees. Both sides joined in singing Christmas Carols, shouting greetings across the way. They even made excursions across No Man’s Land to exchange gifts of food, tobacco, and alcohol.

How were they able to peer past their training and their reality to see the peace being celebrated in the birth of Christ? I think of the enemies we now face and I cannot imagine a similar scene. I cannot see the same opportunities of make-shift sacred space or a common understanding of humanity. During the Christmas Truce, there was a stalemate in the trenches. There was a space created in the impasse. The space was steeped in desperation and prayer. It became a sacred moment juxtaposed with the coming Christmas morning. There was time to actually consider the story of the one hunkered in the opposite the trench. The soldier was drilled to believe that the enemy soldier is the enemy of all life and all future. But in the space in between, they saw a common humanity. They saw the image of God within the other. In a season where we celebrate hope, joy and love, peace overcame them, even if for only a short while.

In some respects, it is probably not completely fair to compare this current conflict with that one so long ago. As I hear the approaching steps of a chaplain, one cannot help but wonder, however. Have the last 13 years of war has created a similar type of stalemate? This deployment has created more questions than answers. Will we be able to take the tragic spaces created by war and make them holy? How will peace be possible if we are unable or even unwilling to see our own stories, sons, and daughters in the faces of our enemy? I do not know. In our candlelit circle tonight, there will be no elements of the enemy. There will be no echoing songs coming from battle lines afar. No gifts. No sharing of photos of family. No laughter. After nine months however, I can attest that the same desperation and prayer will be here tonight.

The problem of peace is nothing new. I had hoped that this problem would be one I would not have to pass down to my children awaiting my return. I imagine that same hope was a driving reason for the anticipation surrounding Christ’s birth so long ago. And so tonight we will sing. And we will pray. And we will lift the light of Christ high into the air. And we will welcome the Prince of Peace, trusting like those soldiers did a hundred years ago that peace can be born in the most hopeless places.


Hope in a Child

by Abigail Conley

“I think you have a kid in there,” I said, nodding toward his truck, and taking his empty cart back to the return for him.

“Thank you so much,” he answered, looking relieved.

Both of us were crazy enough to go to Costco in the week before Christmas and just happened to park near each other. I confess, I second guessed taking his cart for him. Mostly, I second guessed because women doing things like that for men in public space isn’t expected. I almost did it as soon as I headed toward the return with my own cart, but walked past him just a little bit. I looked back to talk to him, to offer to take his cart for him. In that split second, I might have seen his hesitation to walk away from the truck where his child was safely strapped in a car seat. I don’t know. I do remember what was expressed more deeply than usual, “Thank you so much.”

I’m quite certain he didn’t know that I’d seen him earlier, along with his son, inside the store. I was sitting at the restaurant, quickly scarfing down a slice of pizza before heading on to my next task. He walked by, between my cart and the wall, pushing his cart with both purchases and son. I noticed him because his son was crying. When I say crying, I mean that horrible version of crying that children do when they’re just done.

I’d taken notice because of the crying, and then I saw a father being a very good father. They had a smoothie, and the child wanted some. As he cried, the father gently coaxed, “Use your words.” Over and over, again, “Use your words.” The phrase is familiar, one often heard spoken by teachers and parents of young children. Those words struck me differently today, though, as the man spoke them to his son.

I thought about them after he left Costco, as I was finishing up my pizza and walking to my car. It’s the week before Christmas; the walk to the car in a Costco parking lot is extra long. I let the please, “Use your words,” roll over in my mind, thinking how different the world would be if we used our words, instead.

My mourning for Syria has been long and deep. A “complete meltdown of humanity” the news says. That might be the best summary imaginable if even half of the news making it to this part of the world is true. I fear we actually don’t know the half of it. My fear as leaders talk of the need for more nuclear weapons is deep, as well. Words, it seems, are always used to cry out for something more, too often, that thing is violence. It seems that’s the go-to answer right now, with no one quite sure how to put a stop to it all.

I don’t know any more about that father than what I just told you. Who knows what he’s like day in, day out. I have hope, though, that this father coaxing his very, very young son to use his words rather than have a tantrum might do even more good with that child in the long run. Use your words, not your fists. Use your words, not a weapon. Use your words, face to face. Use your words first, and finally.

It is the absurdity of the season, after all, that our deepest hope is in a child—a child called the Word, made flesh, and dwelling among us. The child, called Word, brought all sorts of hope along into that manger, including that swords would be beaten into plowshares, and we would not learn war any more. The beauty of that impossibility lingers deep these days, the promise that we will one day put away our many, many tools of destruction.

For today, while I still await the Christ child’s coming, I am comforted a bit by this man and his child. The hopes of this season run deep: the hope for peace; the hope for fear to subside; the hope that our words become enough. To this man who I’ll likely never see, again, thank you so much.

Finding Security in Tumultuous Times

by Amos Smith

All of us more or less thrive on a predictable world, where things go as planned. When Brexit happened in Britain and when Donald Trump happened in America it was a jolt to our central nervous systems. And the shock waves were felt throughout the world. The establishment has been rocked.

For me, Bernie Sanders was the omen. His popularity, especially with young voters, was unprecedented. Then when Jeb Bush, who I thought was the strongest Republican nominee, departed the campaign, I thought to myself… “This country wants deep change. It does not want another Bush or Clinton. It wants someone who will disrupt business as usual, someone who will shake things up.” The American people want someone on the margins like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump.

Now I pray that our people, government, and nation will find ways to mend the divisions among people, heal the anger and hatred fueled by the campaigns, create hope where there has been fear and suspicion, and attend to the very real concerns, problems, and needs of people.

We live in tumultuous times. Political storms, storms of climate change, international storms are brewing around us. It is tempting to despair, to feel alone and forsaken. And most of all many feel insecure, like the ground is shaking beneath their feet.

In light of all this I think of the story of Jesus calming the storm at sea (Mark 4:35-41)… In the case of the storm at sea, the waves were crashing on and spilling over into the boat. In the midst of all that Jesus said “Be not terrified! There shall not be a hair of your head that perishes.” In other words, “Yes, there are many reasons to feel timid and hopeless. Yet, in the midst of it all, I will calm you. I will help you find your center of gravity. I will deliver you.”

I was comforted by Hillary Clinton’s conciliar speech on the morning of November ninth. She said (my paraphrase) that no matter how hopeless we may feel; we should never give up the fight. And that in the big scheme of things, our acts of service, no matter how small, are never wasted. They are chronicled and used by God to further the kingdom.

Hope of Seeds

by Abigail Conley

My church is kicking off a stewardship campaign this week. We chose the theme, “From seeds to fruit.” Today, I finished up posters with images of those steps. Mostly, though, I’ve been thinking about seeds.

I grew up on a farm, with a father who worked at a farm supply store. I remember being in the back of the store with giant bins of seeds. I’m pretty sure most people, when they think of seeds, think of the kind you plant. They think of seeds that create corn, beans and pumpkins. They think of seeds that are distinct. They think of seeds that can often be eaten or planted.

When I think of seeds, though, I think of the tiny ones that are sown. Sowing seeds sounds so eloquent, biblical even. In reality, it’s far more chaotic. Seeds that are sown are tiny, and more or less strewn into rows, or maybe seedbeds, or small pots. They’re never carefully placed like seeds of larger varieties. The tiny seeds that would be sown were the ones that filled up the bins in the back of the farm store of my childhood. I never got my fill of running my hands through them. My dad knew what each one was, of course. Many of them were grass seeds. I remember the way they flowed through my hands, softer, silkier than any fabric could ever be.

Believing those tiny seeds could produce anything was an act of faith. The seeds were so tiny, no one was even worried about the ones that spilled onto the ground when they were bagged for a customer. Of course, I recall Jesus’ words, “…faith the size of a mustard seed…”

Those of us who live apart from the rhythm of sowing or planting, waiting, and harvesting, miss out a little. We miss out on the beauty of a small plant peeking out of the ground. We miss out on the worry of too much or too little water. We miss out on the goodness of going out and picking our food to eat that very night. We miss out on that rhythm that offers a deep hope in the order of the world. It is a rhythm nearly as old as humanity, after all.

So I think about seeds, seeds that point to that rhythm, and let my body grow calm and my mind cease its worry. The anxieties of life run deep for me, as they do for most of us. There are many things to be done in my own life—and after all, if not me, who? I wait for an election days away, wondering if the outcome drastically alters my life. As they should, my friends remind me of the things I shouldn’t let slip from my view because they are the things of God. They are voting early in suffragette white. They drive by the places where people of color were killed, forgotten by most only days later. They call me to vigils for those things and others, like domestic violence, one of those things that is supposed to draw our awareness this month.

I know they struggle to remember those things, too, among jobs, and marriages, children to take care of, and babies on the way.  

And I remember seeds.

I trust in the promise that they hold: our future is full of hope. Some days, that hope is evident, like a bit of green breaking the dirt for the first time. Some days, that hope is realized, like the bite of an apple when the first hint of cool is in the air.

And some days, that hope is buried beneath the earth, waiting. Just waiting. The rhythm of life long established will take over at any time, as holy as God’s ordering of the world in the first days of creation.

So today, I think about seeds.

One Big Idea

(reprinted with permission from a Facebook post by Diana Butler Bass, author of Grounded: Finding God in the World)

Ten years ago, in Christianity for the Rest of Us, I shared a vision of institutional church renewed by vibrant spirituality. That vision emerged from three sources: 1) my own experience, 2) dreaming of a different sort of church, and 3) solid research.

Community renewed by vibrant spirituality. That’s the dream. That’s the big idea. An old idea. But an idea that needs new life today when institutions and communities are struggling and can’t find their way.

It is really pretty simple. Christianity for the Rest of Us was about spirituality embodied in practices — ten beautiful practices of faith. Communities that found new heart by choosing to do good.

People’s History of Christianity was about the same thing — the life of institutions being renewed through vibrant spirituality — this time, it was about the life-giving power of those practices throughout history as the real “thread” of faith, a living tradition. The heartbeat of Christianity at its best.

Christianity After Religion argued that the future depends on us getting this right — that spiritual experience and touching the holy is not only a path to renewing the church but is part of a larger story about the renewing of our culture — an awakening.

And Grounded opens the door to spiritual experience,”storied” by religious traditions, as a path to full humanity and renewal of the earth.

That’s it. One big idea: the whole point is experiencing the power of the sacred, of trusting and following the Spirit as it moves toward love of God and neighbor. Of eyes open, awake to love and joy, hearts “strangely warmed.” And if we do this, we can get across the dangerous chasm of our times and find ourselves on the other side of a bridge — the side where there is more love for the earth, more love for each other, a kind of community that can be accepting and peaceable. We can set a bigger table for the future. It is real.

One idea.

One idea that has called my heart since I was a child. One idea shared in speech and story. But not my idea. It is OUR idea. For so many thousands and thousands and thousands of us know this idea in our bones, we’ve ached for it, prayed for it, worked for it. One idea of justice and grace and goodness in a renewed way in transformed community.

And we can measure our progress. Not by attendance, but by measuring the spread of the conversation, by tracking things like spiritual depth, gratitude, awareness of awe and wonder, and our understandings of meaning and purpose of our lives (for instance, Pew “measures” these things in polling). We can figure out if we are successful by framing the questions differently, by looking for alternative forms of “success” and transformation. We can do this — there are ways of introducing these ideas into communities and congregations and discerning the changes in people’s lives.

And it is lovely. It is a way full of stories, laughter, unexpected surprises, everyday heroes, tragic mistakes — it is like living the play we are writing — everyday enacting grace in the world’s theater. It is magic. It is the greatest drama, comedy, farce, thriller, ballad, and romance ever.

And it is hope. Hope, hope, hope.

Do NOT give up. The current ugliness is because the greater vision beckons, the new possibilities are closer than ever. A more hospitable world, a more just humanity. It isn’t about fixing the church. It is about renewing our life together — and our life with the planet — by experiencing God with us.

I Just Wanted to Tell You Something

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

We lost a friend. And it’s all I can think about. When you lose someone you remember the most random things about them.

Sitting at IHOP hearing a crazy story that had us exchanging looks like “What the…”

Him vaping. Sitting outside vaping. Letting me try it and a fit of laughter when he saw the look on my face. He literally had the biggest tank for his vape. And the strongest dose of nicotine. Endless plumes of smoke.

When he learned I was trans he had this puzzled expression on his face. We were hanging out and I could tell he had questions. I prepared for the normal questions that often happen in social situations when folks discover I am trans, mostly about genitals. I said he could ask me anything. Ready for his question? “Wanna arm wrestle?” And that was it. Nothing more required to continue our connection.

Friendship as usual.

I was supposed to marry him and his wife. He told me he really needed me to show at their shower. It was important to him. Being the over-scheduled jerk that I am, I completely forgot and took my nephews to see Peter Pan. You know, posted pics on Facebook. Which he saw. At the shower. I did not attend. When I realized it I felt awful!

The next time I saw him I apologized profusely and his response “Oh, I am done hating you. I am back to loving you. Jerk.” And then the smile.

Ben introduced me to the Desiderata. And I read it all the time.

He gave me big hugs.

And I desperately want his big hug right now, as I grieve the loss of an arm wrestling, life affirming, forgiveness giving friend.

I lost the person who told me I need to get a suit because I was going to go to a lot of weddings and a lot of funerals. I never thought I would be attending his. Please read and share in honor of my dear friend who died this week at the age of 31.

[Editor’s note: The article below was originally published on this blog October 12, 2015.]


I just wanted to tell you something. I think it’s time that I did.
I’m 37 when I write this.
I’ve known a lot of people who have died.
I’ve never been to war.
I don’t live in a prolific crime area.
I don’t work in a hospice. I don’t spend time in places where one would expect the end result to be death. Yet I have known a lot of people who have died.

“Get a suit. You are going to go to a lot of weddings and a lot of funerals.” Someone said this to me in 2013 when I admitted I had a problem with drugs and alcohol and wanted a different path. I spend time in places where one would hope the end result to be extension of life. Yet, I know a lot of people who have died.

What’s more is I have known a lot of people who have died recently. Their families are still reeling, recounting lost moments, angry conversations, desperate pleas, wishing they had done things differently. Their friends are still tearing up with the thought, “I can’t believe you are gone.” Their voice still hangs in the part of the brain where one can swear they JUST HEARD IT. It’s fresh grief because they just died last month, even the last week of the last month. It is likely going to happen today where I live that someone who is attempting to alleviate the endless aching of deep, deep soul pain will use the solution that always worked before and this time it will kill them.

This is nothing new. As long as there has been access to life threatening mind-altering drugs, people have used them and people have died. There is nothing new under the sun. Yet, I can still hear their laugh and their intention to stop as they wished for something better so I think I need to tell you a few things that will make me feel really vulnerable. I do feel vulnerable in this writing, but I also feel called so, here it goes…

I was different in my faith tradition and spiritual practice when I was younger. I was a super, uber born-again, biblical literalism Christian as a teen with values of complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol. I took myself to church when my friends were taking themselves to parties. I was scared of drugs and alcohol. I had lived experience of addiction from adults in my life since I was very young and I desperately wanted a life where none of that existed. I sought after a life where none of that existed.Though my values and my attempts at daily living were to walk away from any situation where drugs and alcohol were involved, there was also a deep aching for me where my sexuality and gender identity were concerned. Since this did not match the teachings and beliefs the broader church that I subscribed to at the time held, I very much felt intense shame and pain, constant preparation for rejection, a feeling of otherness at a level that sometimes relegated me to exist alone and isolated in my room, feeling desperate for love. It also led me to thinking of dying nearly all the time until I was 21. I am a queer person and transgender and this pain is a common story. My story is one of so many.

This pain accompanied me. One day, I tried alcohol. Hello, sweet relief! No pain, no worry, no fear. And the people I drank with did not care one bit that being a girl and female didn’t ever fit for me, but I was super glad it fit for them: “Hey girl, how you doing? Come here often?” I could tell the truth about the person I was and they did not reject me. With that first drink, my internal and external world had congruency. So I sought that moment over the next many years, again and again and again. Richard Rohr poses that the only reason we do something again is that the last time we did it, it wasn’t entirely satisfying. We were left wanting. The alcohol that flowed into places never touched before and met a need I never knew could be met before, awakened a wanting that would never leave. I wanted to feel that way forever and ever and ever. Amen.

I also did not want that addiction thing I grew up despising. The loss of control for me was gradual. I had dreams, I had wishes, I had hopes and even though I found sweet surrender in alcohol, it took some time for that to become my focus. It was gradual, seductive and debilitating. Without too many details, this ebb and flow of trying to be in the world and follow dreams, live values, be authentic, seek spirit while also trying to meet this ever growing need that took me further away from everything that was life-giving became a tsunami of pain, loss and certain death. I expedited this when I discovered opiates.

People often die when they combine opiates and alcohol. This combination is one of the deadliest in the world. They may not die the first time, often not the second, but if it continues, they will die at a higher rate than either alone. I know that. The reason I know that is that when all of this was happening in my life, I worked professionally as someone trying to help people who were in addiction and asking for help. It is my craft and my career. Those words, on paper, in front of me now, seem ridiculous. I was drowning trying to help those drowning. Here’s the thing, though, I didn’t know I was drowning. That’s the trickiness of this whole painful disease: you often don’t know you have it until it nearly kills you. And I thought I was breathing fine as the tsunami overtook me.

I knew if I took these pills and I drank, I could die. I didn’t consciously want to die. I had developed a lot to live for. There was incredible pain deep within that beckoned me to consider death, but I wasn’t aware of it most days. I drank and I took those pills. A few things led me to ask for help. We got that alcohol thing in check. That just freed me, though, to really start taking those pills. And I was addicted to opiates in nearly no time at all.

There are stages of addiction. It is a deadly disease, once activated, it often ends in death, but along the way, it separates the sufferer from experiencing anything loving and life-giving at all. It depletes the world from light; darkness overtakes everything in its final stages. What’s so awful, though, what’s so incredible soul wrenching, is when it started, I felt like I had finally found light. Isn’t that the worst thing ever? I finally felt peace. Ease. I felt equanimity, truly. I feel sacrilegious for that statement since there is nothing I know more soul stealing than addiction, but it finally gave me that “We are meant to love and be loved” awareness that overtook everything bad. And then it immediately started killing me.

Opiate addiction is its own animal in so many ways. I have a teacher in my life, Dr. Wen Cai, an expert in the field, who gives an amazing talk about opiate addiction I have listened to a number of times. One of the things he talks about is viewing this as the disease that it is. He describes opiate addiction as the cancer of addiction. People are dying at an alarming rate if it is not interrupted. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that every day in the United States 44 people die from prescription opioid overdose. Add another 21 people who die every day due to heroin overdose. Put another way to help us fully understand this magnitude, there are now more deaths from opiate overdose than all motor vehicle accidents and the numbers are growing. And how do we fare in Arizona? Arizona is ranked in the top 10 states struggling with this epidemic.

When someone activates the disease of addiction with their first use, opiates commonly administered the first time in pill form, they are stepping into a life and death situation. It’s a gamble every time a person uses. That alone is awful. You know what makes it even worse? The person putting that pill to their lips for the first time is often a teenager wondering what this thing their loved one has been taking feels like. And they just activated a disease that could have them dead before they ever have a chance to live.

I’m 37 when I write this and I have a full life expectancy because my disease, for all intents and purposes, is in remission due to the work I do daily to maintain recovery. If I were to use again, I would be back in the gamble of life and death.

I have known a lot of people who have died and I desperately want that reality to change. It is the work of the church with extravagant welcome to consider our role in addressing what the CDC has described as the worst outbreak of opiate and heroin addiction in the history of the world. This submission to you is just a start for a conversation I hope will be very much ongoing.

I just wanted to tell you something. I have the disease of addiction and I have hope.

Speaking Truth is a Duty

guest post by Kay Huggins, Interim Executive Director, New Mexico Conference of Churches

I’ve been speaking with pastors over the past two months and although I have 5 specific questions, the content of these conversations is deep and wide. A few themes are emerging:

Hope: I anticipated hearing at least a few complaints, but frankly, there have been precious few. Most pastors experience great satisfaction and joy in their callings; some feel overwhelmed; but, rarely is heard a discouraging word. Moreover, the sense of hope is linked to growth among the members and leaders of the churches: new ideas, new visions, new challenges and new opportunities are combining to create new steps for Jesus’ followers.

Relationships: Every pastor, at some point and always in a unique manner, identified ministry as grounded in strong relationships: with family, colleagues, members, neighbors, and friends. Moreover, all affirmed that their effectiveness in ministry is directly related to these relationships. Most spend time and energy being with others — so that together, they will be strong for doing the ministries entrusted to them.

Speaking out…together: This theme included a bit of sadness and/or frustration. Almost every pastor interviewed expressed a passion for speaking the truth of our Christian values and convictions in a bold and free way; but also expressed was the persistent awareness that in our culture, the voice of many churches is inaudible. The “Christian voice” has been kidnapped by evangelical or conservative churches and the progressive or socially engaged churches have been put on mute. The pastors I interviewed longed for to speak out, together, and be heard.

In these days of political turmoil and distress, the voice of the silenced progressive, socially engaged and liberal Christian churches is needed. A very helpful article, “Unprohibited speech“, Christian Century, July 20, 2016 reminds:

“There’s no law against religious leaders speaking and living out the truths of their faith…What (by law) is prohibited is an explicit endorsement of a candidate.”

This is followed by a stirring string of strong words churches may speak.

“Churches are free to say that a candidate who threatens opponents with violence is undermining the basis of community.

They are free to say that a candidate who targets people of one religion for discriminatory treatment is attacking the basis of everyone’s religious freedom.

They are free to say that campaigning by name-calling and personal insult is an affront to reason.

And they are free to say that a candidate who sneers at the disabled, ridicules people because of their appearance, and promises to engage in torture fails to understand that all humans are made in the image of God.”

Dear ecumenical community, we are old and young, rich and poor, Protestant and Roman Catholics living in New Mexico; let us speak up as individuals, as church leaders, as congregations, as an ecumenical community of believers. Let us claim the freedom we have to lift up our distinct and deep Christian values…especially within the current political context.

Share with me your statements and I will share them with the ecumenical community of the New Mexico Conference of Churches.

I remain, steadfastly, Kay Huggins, Interim Executive Director.