I Can Do That With My Eyes Closed

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I learned a neat trick.

A lifehack… actually, a lovehack.

I learned it in these dark moments.

There is a concept of “total pain” that is fitting. Total pain means being consumed by physical, emotional and spiritual pain to a degree that is unbearable. I experience total pain at times. I experienced it about four hours ago, actually.

My head is in a lot of pain which means I spend a whole heckuva lot of time in dark rooms with my eyes closed.

For some, that’s not a safe place to be considering the role fear can play in those dark places. I experience that at times as well.

In the moments outside of total pain, I do a lot of preparation for the hard moments that will come back.

I do a whole lot of prayer and meditation, affirmations and reminders. I intentionally take in the world around me, noting, close attention to the details of those I love. How they look when they laugh. How they do basic day to day stuff. How they live.

Here’s some things I noticed about some of the people I love:

My mom hums a lot and sings a lot. She often has a bubbling joy and it shines in her eyes.

My wife says “Ok” to herself a lot, right before she is going to move her hurting body over to the next task she is starting. She has the sweetest smile for me when I come in the room.

My son smiles in a very specific way right before he is going to say something funny. And he says I love you in a present, kind, authentic tone. My favorite sound.

Logan laughs, heartedly and fully. It fills the room in a very welcomed manner. It’s contagious and whoever is in the room laughs with him.

My long-time best friend Heather leans in when she is enjoying humor and looks up when she is going to drop some amazing wordplay.

My dear friend Jen does a sideways glance when she is about to drop the funny and she gets tears in her eyes from laughing hard.

Tylar breathes deep as they hear a hard truth. A centering breath and presence. They have the most amazing eye contact.

These are great attributes in and of themselves.

The payoff of being intentional in this way is rather amazing when put to use. It mitigates and eases the internal world I often must exist within. With my eyes closed and in the midst of total pain, the suffering can be shifted into an endless combination of peace, kindness, humor, strength, life.

That’s not the trick I was going to tell you about, though.

I know! Right?

You’re like “What else is he going to say?!?!”

I clearly deal in pins and needles.

My careful study and presence of mind helps me endure during times of total pain, but it does something else as well.

Loving people allows me to experience love when the people I love are not able to be with me.

Let’s take that again: My love for others creates space for me to receive love and live in it.

One more time for the people in the back: loving begets being LOVED!

In this moment right now, are you alert and aware enough to do a favor for the future you?

If so, give this next part a try before you return to the tasks and business of life.

Spend some time picturing the faces you love. Imagine them. Think about what you love about them. Get as detailed as you can. Sit with it. Remember best moments. Make a playlist of nurture and love that can hold you and be there when life gets dark and small.

When we actively love, it fills within us, it permeates our lives. It’s that “runneth over” thing…

Like a five-year old pouring his own red Kool-aid to the very tippity – toppity of his glass, sure to spill everywhere, love acts in the same way.

Love is messy.

Love gets clumsy.

Love splashes out to all aspects of our lives.

And just like that red Kool-aid, love imprints on everything that it reaches.

Imagine that.

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.

Living in Uncomfortable Places

by Amanda Petersen

Last week I highlighted staying in uncomfortable places. In the midst of this political season, and events both far and near, we don’t have far to go to practice staying in these places. The question is, how do we stay without falling in hopelessness or wanting to run away? What I have noticed is the call to want to do something to make it feel better. What if you can’t? How do you make hate, environmental disaster, or divided people into a manageable situation?

To begin with, one must change the question. Our brains and egos want to make all pain better so the questions tend to revolve around that. The reality is that in many situations there is no fixing some pain. So why even get involved? Instead of asking, “How do I make it better?” try asking, “How am I called to love?” When there is love, one can stand in places they never dreamed. The thought of sitting vigil while someone dies may sound overwhelming until it is someone you love. Then you are willing to sit and be. When love is the connection, we will go into these places and sit with the reality and the tension of not being able to solve it. The movement then becomes standing as a witness to the pain, in love.

Still, it is helpful to have something tangible as a symbol of love. This can be a word, a listening ear, just being kind or donating goods needed. I would like to highlight the gift of anointing. Often seen as something only ordained or trained people do, it is truly something anyone can give to another. Especially during times of deep pain where someone is suffering or they are on the opposite side of an issue. The act of touch, scent, and words of blessing, healing, and love creates a deep and unexpected space that allows everyone to stay in the pain and realize they are not alone. This Saturday, Michelle Jereb is leading a workshop on the gift of scent and touch and prayer or blessing in seasons of both pain and joy. This is an important workshop for those who want to learn more about staying in the uncomfortable as well as how to stay in blessing. It’s not too late to sign up, yet space is limited. Take a moment and check it out.

This week how are you being invited to answer the question “How am I called to love in this situation?” How does it help you stay in the uncomfortable?

A Whole Lens on Life

by Beth Johnson

I walked around for months with my head down and my chubby little seven-year-old hands clasped . . . around a 1950’s Eastman Kodak Brownie Camera, a Christmas gift from my parents, intended to distract me from the death of my older brother, Billy, whose four-year battle with childhood leukemia had been lost several days before his tenth birthday.  Little did they know how symbolic this new lens on life would become for me.

Our family was numb.  Our lives had revolved around Billy’s care, keeping him encouraged, doctored and medicated (at the Cleveland Clinic), and rested.  We siblings brought his school work home weekly from the Edwin Markham Elementary School, and sat on his bed to play board games, willingly giving up our friendship time to support his health.  Our family had purchased one of the first black-and-white T.V.’s for his bedroom so that we could enjoy “The Lone Ranger” and “Howdy Doody” and hope to cheer him up. We had gone to church every Sunday and prayed and done everything right.  Of course Billy couldn’t go because of germs.  He had died despite our heroic efforts.  

Our minister advised that we kids not attend the funeral.  Too sad an event, as if we weren’t already devastated and knew exactly what had happened, as if we might live blissfully onward without a care.  Billy’s leukemia had been, after all, four years of all of our lives.  We stayed home with our grandmother and cried.  Our clergy preached that we should all feel happy that Billy was in Heaven with God, no more pain or suffering.  They seemed to have no concept of the kind of support we could have used to help us work through the deep hollowness that the death brings.  

After my second grade class let out one day, I walked directly to our church and asked to meet with the Head Minister.  I was ushered into the office of the Minister for Christian Education, a woman with a strong intellect and little warmth.  I sat dwarfed in her huge brown leather wing-back chair and asked if she could help my family with our sadness.  She told me to give my life to Jesus Christ and everything would be O.K.  She gave me theology when I needed God’s Love and Sustenance.  She gave me precepts when I needed the warmth of a faith community.

Within a year, my mother had Stage IV breast cancer and a radical mastectomy. I can still picture my eight-year-old-self standing in shock by her bedside as she showed me her railroad track scar and explained what the doctors had needed to do.  From that point our family life struggled.  I listened while  my mother cried herself to sleep many nights out of a sense of guilt and for fear of losing another child.  We were living with the sudden rise of polio and no one knew the causes.  My father traveled increasingly for his work.  We kids buried ourselves in our school work and tried to be the best daughters and sons possible in order to alleviate our parents’ suffering.

One day, as I shuffled my little feet home from school, one of my brother’s classmates asked me where Billy was.  I hesitantly pointed toward the sky.  “No!” he exclaimed.  “That can’t be true!”

At that moment I realized that there were probably many people in my life who had no idea that my brother had died.  A second “aha” came close on the heels of that one – that there were very likely lots of people in the world walking around with smiles on their faces while hiding deep pain.  Because that was exactly what my parents and siblings and I were doing. At age seven, radical empathy was born.

This life-changing experience was the jump-start of my spiritual and moral development.  It became a lens through which I filtered every life experience.  It heightened my sensitivity to people around me, driving me forward with an untamable desire to ease human suffering, especially through the church and God’s Love.  This life lens led me to understand that children, adolescents and young adults within and outside of our churches have deep needs for spiritual and moral support and guidance.  They may not show that to us, but it is there and they need us to love them.  People of all ages and walks of life are doing the best they can and need us to be God’s Love for them.

My experience of my brother’s leukemia and death is something that I rarely discuss but I am very conscious that it was a pivotal experience that has catapulted me into the ministry and the helping professions.  There is no greater pastoral care tool for a clergy person than understanding pain, from the inside.  

You, too, have stories of pain and struggle that have immeasurably changed who you became, as a person and a professional.  That job that you lost, the parent who left, the wayward child, an addiction, a run-in with the law, you know.  Are you embracing your “pain stories” ?  At least to yourself?  Are you recognizing how they have shaped and strengthened you, even though they were extremely difficult?  Even though you’d like to bury many of them in your unconscious mind.   

We bring “our whole stories” (OWS) to life and to church.  It is through the lenses of the “OWS” that we respond to every situation, secular and sacred.  Our assumptions, perceptions, conclusions, fears, and actions are ALL filtered through the lens of the “OWS.”  Furthermore, every other person in your faith community is having the same individualized experience.  We are all looking for healing and acceptance, understanding and deepening, growth and a sense of spiritual peace and goodness, friendship and Love.  We are all looking to become better, more whole people.

Jesus made it very clear that God treasures each of our “whole stories.”  Warts and all.  The woman at the well.  The woman who was hemorrhaging.  The dishonest tax collector. The mad man inhabited by demons.  Our whole stories develop us into God’s people, if we will let them.  Our OWS have Power! Together with God, we can turn them into “POWS” !

Jesus lived authentically and embraced the unbelievably difficult aspects of his life and calling.  He could have backed down during the last week of his life, but he did not.  His “whole story” is what we carry forward as Christianity.  If he had not lived “whole-ly,” there would be no Christianity.  Jesus gave us a lens through which to perceive and experience life and a role model to follow.  The lens is his whole life story.

How have the lenses of your “whole story” informed your development?  How has the lens that Jesus provided helped you?  Far better lenses than my 1950’s Brownie Camera !

“Be ye perfect (whole) as your Father in Heaven is perfect (whole).”  Mt. 5:48

To respond confidentially to this article, you may reach Beth using the contact information on her contributor page.

 

Embrace

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

Every year, thousands of people develop a dependency on opiates. Most go through some form of treatment which means that they have to endure detox. There are medications out there that can lessen this severity, but there is withdrawal when those are stopped as well. It’s gonna hurt to quit the thing that the person started using in order not to hurt.

Unless there is secondary vulnerability, we won’t die from withdrawing from opiates. We could die withdrawing from benzodiazepines or alcohol, but not opiates. The line used by some professionals who know a few things about addiction and recovery is, “You won’t die from withdrawing on opiates. You will just wish you were dead.” What they are saying here is that opiate withdrawal is one of the hardest things a person could endure.

I have withdrawn from opiates on a couple of occasions. I can assure you, it is the truest, most brutal kind of suffering ever. Don’t do drugs. The after-school specials of yesteryear were right. They were poorly acted and scripted, but they were right. Like Jack, getting high on that beanstalk, I didn’t heed the cautionary tale.

I’ve written about the disease of addiction already and this is actually not what this article is about. I know, we are four paragraphs in and it has been about addiction, but it’s about to merge into something else. So, check your re-view mirrors and let’s merge.

I came to a friend some time back who knows a few things about addiction.  I said, “I think I am addicted to opiates.” He assisted me in finding treatment, getting time off of work to withdrawal, and walked me through withdrawal one step at a time. He is a good man, that guy. I won’t say who he is but his name starts with an E and ends with an “verett”. One thing he said over and over again during my withdrawal was, “Embrace the suck.” I hesitated to write that line in a faith-related blog, but any other word to replace “suck” just would not do.

What my friend was telling me in that moment was that embracing the suck means walking through it rather than struggling against it. It means acknowledging the reality of where you are at physically, spiritually or emotionally without having it be the place you will forever stay. It means that if you are in the habit of embracing the worst moments, you will most certainly be in fit position to embrace the good when it comes. And it will come back.

When hurting, it is a good idea to develop some mantras. I use some mantras in my own life, in addition to the one in the paragraphs above.

“This too shall pass.”

“Breathe.”

“Be here now.”

“God is Love.”

These are anchors to truth when I feel untethered. When the extreme happens in our lives, it creates an awareness that we are at risk. A healer in my life says, “The vigilance we experience after an extreme event puts us in touch with how fragile life can be. We generally don’t walk around thinking about that or experiencing that because it would be too much and too debilitating.” Scary, unwelcomed, hurtful life stuff makes it feel like we are only fragile. We are only vulnerable. That is not true.

We are fragile. We are sturdy. We are vulnerable. We are powerful. We are all of it. And what a range of emotion that can be. If it feels hard it’s because it is hard. If it feels easy it’s because it is easy. All of it. No binary, no either/or; all of it. Improv comedians actually know this reality well. They teach you to say “Yes, and…” rather than, “No, but…” They utilize that concept to be in a flow with the other folks doing improv. It’s basically, “I accept that and here is what I can contribute.” Back and forth, flow…

The pain will come and I am sorry for that, I wish it were different for all of us. The tears will well up. The sadness will seep in from time to time. The grief will take a seat at the most sacred place in your life at some point. And it will so suck.

The ease will come and I am so happy for that. The smiles will come again. The laughter will find its way back. And peace will take a seat at the most sacred place in your life at many points. And it will be so joyful.

So I say to you, as I also say to me, “Open your arms. It’s time to embrace it. All. Of. It.”

The “Is-ness” of Healing

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

Before you read this, may I ask you to do something? It may be an odd request, may even prevent you from reading this now since you may not be in a space where it would be a good idea to play something on YouTube. It may even be something you choose not to do, but I will ask anyway.

Will you please play this video? Will you then close your eyes and sit with what you hear? Listen as many times as the mood strikes you. It’s good stuff.

Then come on back:

John Denver “All This Joy”

 

Welcome back…

When I was about 8 years old I remember hating nighttime. There are a variety of reasons for this that increased my sense of vulnerability at night, probably things that would resonate within you as well. My little 8 year old self thought frequently, “Why do we all go to sleep at the same time? Shouldn’t someone be keeping watch?” We are at our most vulnerable when sleeping, completely unaware. We really should have planned this out better as a human race, right?

Going to sleep while everyone else is asleep has a certain strange agreement of trust. We’re pretty much saying, “Hey, I am going to just close my eyes for the night and make myself as vulnerable as can be. I am pretty sure we all are going to wake up on the other side of this day.” When life events, though, challenge that level of trust and belief, sleep becomes harder to come by because vulnerability is harder to come by.

I’ve shared with you before that I am in recovery from drugs and alcohol. As many with that history, I tend to be pain avoidant. It is hard to sit with pain, physical and emotional, palpable and overwhelming. I don’t like it. I actually hate it. I despise it. It frustrates and confounds me that it’s in the mix of life.

That avoidance of pain versus the turning to face it is really the challenge we are faced with most regularly.. Each time we turn to face the reality of the present circumstances or moment, we are being co-creators with Spirit and participants in the flow of life. I forget this a lot. Like all the time. I forget this because pain hurts. You likely do the same because pain hurts. We certainly do this as a community because pain hurts.

I write a lot of subtext to my daily experiences. I make meaning in ways that allow me to understand the world around me. I can act as though that subtext is true, but really, it’s just my thoughts trying to make the world more palatable and less dangerous. Often the subtext that I create separates me from the world around me, separates me from you. Separates you from me. I’m pretty tired of that, aren’t you?

Here are some myths about pain that I’d like for us to consider getting rid of:

-If I feel the loss, the grief, the sadness, it will break me. Forever.
-If I start to feel I will feel this way always. Forever.
-If I leave it alone and not look at any of it, time will just make it go away.
-If I spend time honoring those feelings, I am self indulgent and need to change.
-If I drink this, take this pill, watch this video, it will numb me out and I will not have to worry about it anymore.
-I should compare my pain to what others have to walk through and then shame myself for feeling bad because they have it worse than me.

There is an ebb and flow to pain and healing. It looks like this:
It gets better.
Then it gets worse.
Then it gets better.
Oh great, now it got bad again.
Hey! Guys! Look! It got better again!
Ok it’s getting worse again.
Yay! It’s better…
And the bad days start to neutralize and the wound starts to heal.

There is more space between the times it gets better and when it gets bad again. We are constantly reaching for equilibrium. And, if we let it, it comes. Eventually.

The only way it comes, though, is through a turning to rather than a turning away.

I am not an expert on grief and loss, but I certainly have experienced it. I am not an expert on brokenness, but I can check that box too. I am not an expert on isolation and turning away. Wait, I kinda am. I’m kinda a gold medal contender for that one. Who else would like to join me on the podium?

Your life, my life, our loved ones lives, will experience pain, injury, brokenness. It just is. Your life, my life, our loved ones lives, will experience healing. It just is. My dear friends, this is the work in living. This is the work in relationship. This is the work of the ministry of reconciliation. This is the work of our communities of faith.

Healing comes when we turn to what is.

And that, my friends, is the stuff of life.

It just simply is.

Wanna Trade?

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

Some very wise people in my life have said, “If everyone were to throw their problems in the middle of the room and you were able to take any of the problems and leave yours, you would pick yours back up rather than take on someone else’s.” Sorta like the White Elephant gift exchange gone depressingly wrong.

I think there is a tremendous amount of truth in the thought that we would rather have our own stuff instead of someone else’s when we can clearly see the extent of what others carry, ours doesn’t look half bad.

What this exercise would do, if it could really be done, is increase a sense of empathy and understanding for those we walk amongst daily. The crushing weight of worry and anxiety, heartache and loss is ubiquitous. No one gets out of this world without some of that. It is our connection and response to these painful moments and seasons that determine the extent of what we will carry and for how long. We could cliché this reality very easily with such platitudes as: “The only way out is through” or something of that nature. While there is truth to that, I rarely have found that helpful when I am sitting in darkness and hurting. The next step toward freedom seems impossible to take.

I am an isolator. I know I’m not alone there. It’s as though I go into power down mode when difficult feelings or situations rise. I know I’m not alone there, either. And isn’t that ironic? I know I am not alone in feeling utterly alone at times. If that isn’t an awful merry-go-round I don’t know what would be. The isolation that I often retreat into removes connection to people in my life. Every. Single. Time. And then I wonder, where the heck are you people, not realizing that it is me who has gone away. Experiencing painful moments doesn’t have to be so hard. It will likely still be very difficult when encountering these times, but it does not have to be so incredibly lonely and painful when others are around to help us shoulder the burden.

A missionary friend told me a story from her time in S. Africa that often occurs to me, especially when I need it most. She described a man who was carrying a pack that must have weighed over 100 pounds as he walked and walked and walked. He was an older gentleman, with a weathered, tired face. The weight that he was carrying had him hunched over, his torso parallel to the road he was trudging. This friend pulled over and invited to give him a ride. He accepted and got into the bed of the truck. She drove a bit and then saw in her review mirror that he was hunched over still, kneeling in the back of the truck with the weight still tied to his back. She pulled to the side of the road and told him he could take the pack off while they drove. His reply was, “It’s too heavy for your truck. It will break it.”

So we say, without words, but entirely in action: “The weight, it’s too heavy for you, it will break you. I will shoulder the burden alone. I will carry the pain myself. I may accept your kindness of company, but I will keep this weight on my back while I do.” I am not alone here, though I sit feeling alone. When this is reality, there is no sanctuary. When this is the truth we believe, there is often little hope that it could ever change. There is nothing more lonely than being lonely when surrounded by people.

I recently climbed a huge hill, called Tumamoc. I went from a very sedentary existence from the last few years to taking this on. I was accompanied by a dear friend and his two of his sons, who are elementary school age. We consider this friend’s kids to be our nephews and niece. Time with them is always pretty fantastic. We started up the hill and it became quickly apparent that I was going to struggle. Each of them were all geared up and ready, could walk likely twice my pace, but they stayed and accompanied me.

We chatted as we walked. I stopped nearly every chance I got to catch my breath. We were .6 miles away from the top of the hill when I was seriously thinking of throwing in the towel. My friend and his sons walked ahead of me, stopping at the next rest point while I gathered myself 500 ft away. I knew I was so close, but everything hurt. Everything. My breathing was forced and painful. I just wanted to be done. I turned to wave my friend and his kids to come back, but when I turned around I saw something that emboldened my resolve. My nephews were walking back toward me. They each stood on either side of me and the youngest one, only eight years old said, “We’re coming to help you Uncle Davin.” In that moment, there was no way I was not going to finish that hike. No way at all.

The accompaniment of relationship during hard times and hard emotions can seem impossible. There are many messages we receive in our culture that there is little time for grief, there is little time for emotion, there is little time for expressing need. I often buy into that myth. The truth, though, is we are a people who have capacity to love incredibly deeply which means we have the capacity to grieve very deeply. There is room for the love and there is room for the grief, there is room for all of it.

I do not know what problems occurred to you when you read the first paragraph. I do know what problems occurred to me as I wrote it. I also know that the longer we retreat, the longer we hide, the longer we will suffer. Have you ever attempted to take a splinter or cactus out of a child’s finger? They writhe, they yell, they cry even before you get started on this major surgery. And it goes on and on and on, until they settle enough to get it removed. Then it is done in a heartbeat. The more we struggle against what is and the more we refuse to allow others to see what exists below the surface, the more injurious it will be.

I may not want to trade my problems for yours and you likely don’t want to trade yours for mine. I do want us, thought, to unload it on the floor, spread it out, and rest for awhile together. I have a feeling we may even shed some weight of our packs in this process before trekking to our next rest stop.