The Tension is Here

I’ve mentioned here before that I love hospitals. To most, that makes me crazy. One of the reasons I’m comfortable with hospitals is that I like to be reminded of our inherent frailty.

In the middle of bustling cities filled with too-busy people, there are hospitals filled with people like us all who are forced to slow down and have silent conversations with their own bodies.

It’s Ash Wednesday. It’s a strange day in the Church that most churchgoers are often uncomfortable with. Those who observe Ash Wednesday walk around with black smudges on their foreheads for a day. The ashes, a sign of death, come from the same palm leaves that we celebrated life with last Palm Sunday.

With Ash Wednesday, celebration quiets down and transforms into penitence. Last year’s lively adoration burns down into the ashes that remind us of our own mortality.

My cerebral palsy has given me weak muscles, bad balance, an unsteady gate, and a startle reflex that is completely out of control. Throughout the years, my cerebral palsy has embarrassed me. It has sidelined me when I wanted nothing else than to be on the field with all the others. My cerebral palsy has disappointed me. Sometimes I wonder what life may have been like if the happenstance that is cerebral palsy hadn’t happened to me. Would I be taller, more athletic? I would hope I’d be more steady on my feet–solid, even. More outgoing? Maybe.

Who knows.

But there are many ways in which I am grateful for having my disability. My cerebral palsy grounds me. It gives me an appreciation for the solidness of the ground beneath me and the people around me. It has taught me to rely on others in a way I think we were all meant to anyway, but are often too proud or stubborn to.

My cerebral palsy has taught me about strength in the midst of weakness. Joy in the middle of frustration. Wholeness in the midst of brokenness. Humor in the face of too-big obstacles. And bravery and peace in the formidable presence of fear, doubt, and even death.

It took me a while to grow comfortable with the message of Ash Wednesday. Why invite a reminder of our own mortality into these vibrant lives of ours? Why contemplate death and frailty when just weeks from now, we can wave our healthy palm branches in a celebration of hope when life wins out over death–when light overcomes darkness every single time?

Ash Wednesday reminds me that often we live our lives in the tension. In between the tension of joy and fear, wholeness and brokenness, health and sickness, life and death, vibrant green palm branches and the ashes of them.

I’ve found on this walk towards wholeness that confronting the brokenness I have felt all these years is just as important as celebrating the wholeness I now know of and hope for more of in the rest of my walk down this path.

Welcome to the tension. We may come from frailty and darkness, but there is strength and light up ahead. Walk with me.

Live the Questions

…I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903
in Letters to a Young Poet

This is one of my very favorite quotations.  Its wisdom has been paradigm-shifting for me. This passage has taught me to live peaceably in the midst of mystery.

Most people don’t like mystery.  Much of our collective anxiety comes from grasping for the answers to questions that are often unanswerable.

We have a longing to know what is often unknowable.

We love to be certain.  Certainty is treated as some sort of virtue, and its corollary, doubt, has long been seen as a weakness–something to get rid of, to grow out of.  Sometimes doubt is cast as a sign of an immature or a lapsed faith.

If you look at the biggest, most successful churches in America, you can see that they are led by pastors who provide their flock with the answers to faith’s questions.  From the doctrine of creationism to the assertion that the bible is a unified and completely infallible document (singular), the quick and easy answers seem to satisfy the masses and draw the largest crowds.  In these churches, the bible is often regarded as “life’s instruction manual”. The idea being that the bible (as ancient a text as it is and as culturally alien as it should feel to us) has all, or at least most, of the answers to our modern day concerns.

Self-help books that give us simplistic and generic answers to complex issues and even more complex human feelings are still front and center in bookstores across America.  We pay big bucks for answers to our questions and solutions to our problems.

I don’t know about you, but every time I read from the bible I end up having more questions than I do answers, but then again, I don’t read scripture longing for answers anyway.  I tend to treat faith more as an art than as a science.  I want to spend my time wondering and exploring more than trying to pin anything down.  I want to look at the bible with my head tilted sideways!

I want to be unsure of what I’m looking at.

As for my faith, I’m skeptical of any sort of certainty.  Where I see certainty, I often see shortsightedness, ignorance, and an unwillingness to explore other possibilities and explanations.

When we are certain of our beliefs, we stop searching altogether.  We develop tunnel vision. We stop using our eyes and ears, and before we know it, we are unable to see and hear the new things that our Living God is doing right in front of us.

Over the years, I have practiced the art of letting go.  I really hate the phrase “let go and let God”, but there’s something to the fact that both Jesus and the Buddha have many overlapping teachings about loosening our grasp on things and letting go of the anxieties we have about tomorrow and living instead for today.

To me this means living with less answers and with more questions.  It means less grasping and more gratitude.  It means less “why?” and more wonder.

Living with cerebral palsy has been much more about living with the questions than it has been about being certain of much of anything.  It may be because of living with cerebral palsy that I’m at peace with ambiguity and unanswered questions.  Life with a disability can be inherently disruptive and unsteady, and whenever I have insisted on any degree of expertise to navigate my way through, I have failed miserably.

Walking is a good example of this.  When I grow certain of the steadiness of the ground beneath my feet and my ability to hold myself up, it is then that I fall down.

Yes, I know the ground beneath my feet is steady, but I continuously question my own stability and my own ability to walk on top of it.  Isn’t it funny that one of my favorite ways of conceiving God is as The Ground of Being beneath our feet!  It speaks to me deeply, because I am so sensitive to it, I have such a conscious relationship with it, and I know what it’s like to be disappointed by it.

One question that I live with is this:  Why do I have cerebral palsy?

I have no answer to this question.  I don’t seek one.  I refuse to come to any conclusions about why I have cerebral palsy.  Such an exploration could be quite depressing, frankly. If I chased the answer to this question, I might end up a bitter and tired creature who belongs to an imperfect Creator.  Perhaps we do have an imperfect Creator, but I refuse, still, to be a bitter creature.

Diving into why disability exists, in a theological sense, sounds to me like a problem of evil question, and nobody has done him or herself (or anyone else) any good by jumping down that rabbit hole.  We human beings can lose ourselves in such an endeavor and end up holding onto nothing but our own anxious desire to know what is past our own understanding.

So, instead, I have chosen to live the questions.

Here’s what I know: I have cerebral palsy.  Why?  I’m not so sure.  But I think that’s the wrong question anyway.

Here’s the right question:  Knowing I have cerebral palsy, how shall I live?

Patiently–with wonder and with gratitude–I am living that question.  I am living many others, too.

Perhaps one day I will live my way into the answer.  But I’m not counting on it.  The wonder of living these questions is satisfying enough.

Continue walking down this path toward healing with these sacred questions in your hands. Live the questions.  Consider as a gift any signposts we may encounter along the way, but otherwise be content with the journey.

Beta Male

There’s a place in this world for the Russell Crowes.  The tough guys.  The flannel-wearing handymen.  The cowboy boot-wearing, pool-playing, draft beer-drinking guy’s guys. These types of males are the stars of Craftsman, Ford F-150, Quaker State motor oil, and grilling meat commercials.  They are alpha males.

And I am not one of them.

I haven’t worn flannel in years (too itchy), I can’t walk in cowboy boots (too big, too heavy, too little padding).  I don’t feel comfortable driving anything larger than my Ford Focus. I’d much rather pan-sear than grill-out, and the only oil I’ve had on my hands lately has been the extra virgin olive kind.

I am a beta male.

I am the Ben Stiller to the world’s Robert DeNiro.

I’ve been known to drink Zima.  I take my coffee flavored, my water with a splash of lemon, and my beer with a slice of lime.  Before I owned a GPS, I stopped to ask for directions.  I carry a day bag with me.  I’m well versed in Brat Pack movies.  I read poetry almost everyday.  Extreme Makeover Home Edition makes me cry every time.  I blog about my feelings, and I cook the best coconut lime chicken.

If ever physically confronted, the last thing I’d say before I got punched in the face would be something like, “Let’s all be reasonable here.”

I would wake up a half hour later with an ice pack on my face.

On Dodge Ball

One of my very favorite television shows ever was a short-lived, hour-long comedy about the atrocities of adolescence called Freaks and Geeks. It’s one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen because it has the teenage years pinned down perfectly.

As I was growing up, school was more of an alienating experience than an ingratiating one. I hardly dreaded going to school, but negotiating the confused landscape that is adolescence seemed heroic enough, and then they wanted me to do homework, too.

Once I got to middle school, I had something of an emotional breakdown.  Once I entered the doors and encountered the busy hallways of Harry F. Byrd Middle School, I knew right then that it was too much for me.  I wanted to go back to elementary school.  Surely someone could arrange this for me.

Middle school made me feel even smaller than I already felt.  People grow up way too much between 6th grade and 8th grade.  This wouldn’t be a bad thing except for the fact that the 8th graders knew this.

The hallways in between classes in middle school were like bowling lanes.  The 8th graders were the bowling balls, and guess who the pins were.

I feared for my safety.  8th graders slammed 6th graders against the walls of the hallway coming out of the gym locker room.  The strategy for keeping safe involved staying in the very center of the hallway and keeping low, and even that didn’t guarantee anything.  If you made the mistake of walking down Yellow Hall against the wall, some big 8th grader would make you into a wall ornament.  It was a bloodbath.

My guidance counselor arranged it with the principal so that I got a pass to take the outside route to get to gym class, safely detouring the “running of the bulls/splattering of the 6th graders” that happened everyday on Yellow Hall.

My friends were envious of my pass.  Once I reentered Yellow Hall from the outside doors, I would watch from my safe place to see whether my friends made it through the day’s 8th grader target practice.

The pilot episode of Freaks and Geeks is my very favorite.  It has a dead-on treatment of another sort of schoolyard “target practice” that the bigger, more physical students thrived off of, and the “less bigger, less physical” ones had to endure and were forever scarred by.

It is the legalized form of torture more commonly referred to as “dodge ball”.

I hate dodge ball.  I hate every form of it.  The circle kind.  The German kind.  Whatever other kinds there are, I hate them too.  I hate the guy who invented it.  He must have pinned a couple of 6th graders against the wall in his middle school, too.

Here’s what I imagine the first explanation for dodge ball being like:

So, you take a big red ball that weighs, oh, maybe 2 pounds and is about three times larger than a human head, and you give it to the biggest guy on your team, and you let him throw it as fast as he wants right at the smallest guy on the other team.  If that guy doesn’t catch it, he’s out!  Get it? Let’s play!

What a knucklehead the inventor of dodge ball must have been!

My strategy at dodge ball was to get out as soon as possible and laugh at all the wide-eyed suckers in the middle of the circle scurrying from one side to the other, frantically avoiding the big red ball of death.  This strategy worked for me until we were introduced to the German version.  In German dodge ball, there was no “out”.  Once you were hit in the middle, you went to the sidelines (where you could still get hit) where your job was to get the ball and throw it at the ones still in the middle.  There was no end to the suffering!  I believe the Buddhists call this “Samsara”.

There is no healing from dodge ball, because nothing good can ever come from something so evil.

It’s a good thing most of us don’t stay teenagers forever.  The bitterness of our school years fades along with our acne scars.  Adulthood is much more tame than our teenage years were.  In adulthood, there’s little threat of being thrown against a cubicle by one of our colleagues at work.

And best of all, nobody these days forces us to play dodge ball.

Walk Beside Me

Before I started taking growth hormone in fourth grade, I topped out at about 4’2″.  I spent most of my time looking up at faces and dangling my legs off of kitchen chairs and school desks.

I was tiny.  Then, as now, I was so skinny that whenever I turned sideways I disappeared. My chicken legs, the ones I inherited from my dad, were constantly in overdrive just trying to keep up with the pace of my peers and my parents.  Stride for stride,  I seemed to always bring up the rear.  No matter how hard I spun my legs, I could never keep up.

Instead of picking me up, my mom and dad always urged me to walk, but too often they had to scoop me up to get there faster, wherever “there” was.

I remember being on a field trip to Maymont Park, a park in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, with one of my middle school classes.  We were walking the long pathways up and down its hills, and I was hauling it as fast as I could.  Behind everyone else.  Once in a while, my teacher would look backwards just to make sure I was within some safe distance from her and the rest of the pack.  I guess you could say I had a reputation for being the slow kid.

In many ways, I’ve spent my life trying to catch up, and at some point along the way, I got used to trailing behind.

Fast forward to senior high school.  It was summer, and I was at the annual youth conference at Montreat, North Carolina.  Erica, my best friend throughout high school, handed me a card with a small poem on it.  I can’t tell you the words of that poem anymore, but I still remember the last couple lines:

Do not walk in front of me.

Do not walk behind me.

Walk beside me and be my friend.

After I read the card, she told me that she noticed that I always seemed to walk in back of her even when I didn’t have to.  I never noticed that about myself, but I believed her because I knew how normal it felt for me to walk behind others.

On a certain level I’m sure that walking behind others was more comfortable for me.

“Walking behind” isn’t partnership, though.

Whenever I walk behind, I lose out on being in full relationship with the one ahead of me. When we walk alongside, we fully participate of each other’s experience.  We see what we see together.  We arrive at our destinations with one another.  We experience life with each other.

When we walk beside one another, without saying a word, we claim each other as partners in the journeys we take together.

I still fall behind others when I walk.  I always have to remind myself to kick it into gear and catch up.  But, experiencing the stuff of life “alongside of” is well worth the extra effort.

This is the healing walk.  Walk beside me along this pathway towards wholeness, and if I fall behind, stop for a second so I can catch up.

I promise I’ll do the same for you.

This Constant Wrestling

Whether it’s historical fact or not, we’ll never know.  But that’s beside the point.  The biblical story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious man is one of my very favorites.

It has struggle and restlessness, both of which give way in the end to transformation.  By the end of the story, one of my very favorite things happen.  Jacob limps away from his bout with this mysterious man with a broken hip and a new name: Israel – the one who wrestles with God.

As the story goes, Jacob makes it through the night striving with this man from out of nowhere and walks away transformed.  If we were hearers of this story in its day, it would be clear to us that the broken hip that Jacob sustains in his face-to-face with this divine messenger is metaphorical.  When this story was told, the hip was thought to be the center of our balance.

Jacob, as he makes his way through a long night of wrestling with this divine messenger, has his center of balance thrown off.  He’s bullied into taking a different stance.  And as the morning comes, he hobbles off a new version of himself and with a new vision of the divine, but at the same time altogether not quite sure what just happened or who emerged victorious.

What ambivalence!  If we like our stories with clear winners and clear losers, with headlines that tell us what we should know, and with some clear take-away, then this story disappoints all the way around.

I’ve had my bouts with balance.  I’ve never broken a hip, but some have asked me whether I have ever done so.  When some people with enough curiosity see the way I walk, they ask me if it’s from an old sports injury.

Sometimes I’m tempted to yes, as in “Yes, it’s an old football injury from my days as a college linebacker.”  Sometimes, I want to go even further and say something like, “Yep, this hip injury is the only thing that kept me from going pro.”

I’d have to believe at that point anybody would know I was jerking their chain.

My funny gait is a result of a different sort of struggle.  Before I was ever conscious of it, I stood up in the presence of my cerebral palsy and the weak lower body it had given me and I began wrestling with my body’s ability to walk.  There were many falls.  (There still are!) and there were bumps and bruises.  But in the face of this disability, I got up onto my feet under my own strength and I took my first steps.

I guess you could say I walked away from this wrestling match with a noticable limp.  But like Jacob, walking away at all was a victory.

I still struggle with my body.  It still wrestles me down to the ground sometimes.  I get tripped up, drug down, weak-kneed.  My muscles worn-down.  But this constant wrestling with my body gives me a patience with myself–a different stance–that many others do not have, simply because they have never had to struggle with the basics before.

There is a sort of ambivalence that comes with living life with cerebral palsy.  Disability leaves us with complicated ideas of who we all are as physical beings.  Some of us wrestle with these ideas for a lifetime.

Like Israel, the man formerly known as Jacob,  I’d rather spend my time walking away from the darkness of this struggle and into daylight, with a limp, yes, but more importantly with a new identity and a new awareness of my relationship with my cerebral palsy, my self, and with the one who calls me by a new name.

Mother Nature

For the first time since I created the healing walk, I’ve been asked to write about my thoughts on a specific topic.  How exciting!  After my post on creation and ecology, I was asked to skim the surface of the idea of Mother Nature, the best friend of meteorologists everywhere!

As a poet who is also a person of faith, I’m comfortable living my life inside metaphors.  I had an ethics teacher in seminary, the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, who said that everything we say about God is a lie.  I find this an intriguing statement meant to perk our ears and challenge our assumptions about almost everything!

I wouldn’t put the same idea as bluntly as she does.  I tweaked it a little bit.  I believe that everything we say about God is a metaphor.

Speaking about God thinking that our insights as well as the words we use are accurate or even “capital T Truthful” is like reaching out our hand to the night sky thinking we’re halfway able to grab a star and pull it down.  God is much bigger than any of the words, names, or ideas that we could ever use or even think of, and in spite of our perspective, we’re far from being able to grasp the enormity of the divine.

The ways we speak of God, which includes all of our theology, is much more a human endeavor than a divine one.

This is why I think the questions of faith are a whole lot more important than the answers. I’d rather live out my faith in a way more akin to poetry than to science.  I’m much more comfortable being a wonderer than a person of faith who is addicted to the answers and the steadfast explanations.

If we ever get to a point where we’re sure of our thoughts about God, it is then that we should begin to doubt ourselves.

“Mother Nature” is one of those wonderful ways we can speak about nature or what is happening beyond us.  Although I don’t attribute gender to any aspect of the divine, I have no problem thinking about Mother Nature as a feminine aspect of God.  In a culture where most of us are addicted to masculine images of the divine, it is healthy to challenge cultural assumptions by asserting a feminine image of God.

Mother Nature is everywhere around us.  Mother Nature upholds us.  She gives us the gifts of spring flowers and gentle breezes on otherwise humid days.  She feeds us though harvest and starves us through drought.  She also reminds us that we are all subject to the wildness of our planet, its savagery and size, the back-and-forth sway of the seasons.  She reminds us of our smallness and our helplessness, and at other times she has us convinced that we belong here, our feet and our hearts comfortably planted on the earth.

We could say all of the same things about God.  No matter what names we use to describe whatever it is that upholds us, the ideas are the same.  And so is the wonder.

Mother Nature.  The Divine.  God.  He, she, it.  The One.  The Ground beneath our feet. All of them are our own ways of speaking about a God who is well beyond our grasp, yet who is right here among us, right here inside of us.

Recognize this presence within you and around you.  Open your eyes to it.  Let this presence comfort you, but also allow this presence to upset you.  Speak of this presence by name, but never be convinced that the name you use is the right one.

Let this presence transform you, surprise you, confront you.  Be yourself within this presence.  Let this presence heal you.

Then walk though each of your days confident this presence walks with you.

The Order of Things

There are parts of the bible that can honestly be called “texts of terror”.  Phyllis Trible coined that term in a book of the same name.  “Texts of terror” refers to all of those passages or stories within the bible that are either irresponsible, misleading, too often misunderstood, taken out of context to our own detriment, or may be just flat-out wrong.

Here’s one of those texts of terror:

God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’  Genesis 1:28 (NRSV).

A very familiar text that’s not only a part of church culture but is also enmeshed into our wider culture.  This is one of those texts of terror that isn’t irresponsible on its own, but is too often used irresponsibly by we who read it.  I believe that this text is the birthplace of humanity’s unhealthy relationship with the planet, and it all comes down to how we have misunderstood the word “subdue” and the phrase “have dominion over”.

We can understand these phrases as 1) Human beings are in charge because we’re the most intelligent, so whatever we say, goes.  Or 2) We’re the most intelligent, so we’re the ones charged with taking responsibility for the upkeep of this planet of ours and all that is on it.

Without rehashing all the thousands of sermons preached and essays written about this text and its relationship to ecology, let me just put it this way:  I don’t buy into either of these two understandings.  The first has led us to the ecological devastation that we face today, and the second is just a naive, watered-down version of the first that puts us in charge in roughly the same way the first one does.

There is a third option, but it takes a humility and a maturity that I have seldom encountered outside of the scientific and ecological communities.  It is this:

We human beings are but one of billions of creatures who must share this planet and its resources on equal terms and in equal ways with the rest of our fellow creatures.  The tiniest insect all of way up to the largest whale have just as much of a sacred place in creation as we have.

In short: We’re not the only ones that God is rooting for.  God is rooting for every single part of this rich and full creation!

In the order of things, we are not up top.  We are among.

If this idea ever makes its way out of the scientific and ecological communities and into popular culture, my hunch is that it would be met with extreme resistance.  This new perspective about our place in the order of things decentralizes us.  It makes us one of many as opposed to the one on top.  It deflates us.

But perhaps, for the good of all of creation (and in the name of every creature who skitters about and grows upon this planet) we human beings may need a little deflating.

Re-imagining our place in the order of things gives us a sacred opportunity to return to the basics, to reclaim our humanity, to realize our reckless and terrible steps.  Re-envisioning our place on the planet as “among” rather than “above” gives us the perspective we need to move back into a healing and more harmonious relationship with the rest of the world, with our own humanity, and with the One who put us here to live in concert with the entirety of creation.

Cure-Resistant

I am often cure-resistant.

Cerebral palsy is a disability that cannot be cured, but that’s not what I mean.

I mean to say that too often I’m resistant to the possibility of being cured for anything out there for which a cure does not yet exist.

I don’t mean to say that I don’t hope for a cure for cancer or multiple sclerosis or parkinsons or any other disease.  Just like all the rest of us, I hope with a whole heart that one of these days–perhaps some time in the near future–a cure will be found for these diseases.

What I mean is that I often make the mistake of being unhopeful–even pessimistic–of a cure being found for anything lacking a cure already.

As a student-chaplain, I did a semester’s work in the cancer ward of VCU Medical Center. As devastating as cancer is, the first time someone is told about their diagnosis is even worse.  I was often present for those who were trying to make sense of a new diagnosis and at the same time were thrown into chemo treatments.  With the anxiety and the rush that is all too often inherent in the process of treatment, there is little time to slow down to try to make sense of a new diagnosis.

As I saw it, my job as a chaplain was to help a patient slow themselves down and focus on the spiritual and emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis.  When I was able to get a patient to open up and talk, our time together became a kind of prayer and the space surrounding us became sacred.  These were my very favorite moments.

I often talked to patients with new diagnoses about healing, but I never mentioned curing. I would often wait for them to mention the idea of being cured (for cancer patients, remission is what I really mean).  I didn’t want to talk to about cures, but I was all for talking about healing.

I can’t help but think that my resistance to talking to patients about the possibility of being cured of their disease was one of my shortcomings as a chaplain.  If a patient is going to talk to anyone in a hospital about the possibility of being cured, wouldn’t it be most likely that a chaplain would be the kind of person to talk about it to?  Sounds fair.  But, too often, I was cure-resistant.

To me, coming in to a patient’s room talking about the possibility of a cure seemed too optimistic and too trigger happy. My hesitancy to talk about the best possible outcome for a patient was based more upon my own story than anything else, and my resistance to talking about cures may have left my patients with less to hold onto.

My cerebral palsy can never be cured.  I’m okay with that.  What is important to me is to work towards healing because making meaning out of my disability is the closest thing to “being cured” as I can get.  The mistake I made as a chaplain was projecting this kind of compromise onto others.

Working with patients to help them better understand their lives lived with a new diagnosis is a way to work towards healing.  But going beyond that by asking them what they think about being cured of their disease or sickness is another sort of holistic care that I could have provided for them.  

There is a way to hope for a cure without expecting one.

Perhaps the best pastoral work is to prepare a patient for all situations.  There’s a way to help a person heal no matter what the outcome, but there’s also a way to encourage the hope of being cured and at the same time prepare them for the chance that they may not.

I focused my energies exclusively on helping my patients with spiritual and emotional healing at the cost of hoping with them for a physical cure for their diseases and injuries. Because of this, I may not have been the hope-filled presence they may have expected or needed me to be because I was unable to let go of the idea that cures are not as likely as are emotional and spiritual forms of healing.

As I move forward on this walk towards wholeness, may I grow larger and more accepting of the possibilities of what these remarkable and resilient bodies are capable of when they are armed with hope, faith, and the miracles of modern medicine.