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Ursa Major

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If God were a mother bear

My mother bear

And all the earth were her cubs

I would throw my arms around her girth

Press my face against her fur

I would feel her breath wrap itself around me

And she would comfort me.

If I listened to the strong beat of her heart,

My ear melting into her chest

My heart would start beating with hers

Until I loved all the earth like my own cubs

And being

Breathing

Heart beating

Would be enough

 

Photo by Karin Jonsson

A Tree in the Woods

I want to be a tree in the woods

Where my branches reach rough and tumble

            toward the sky

And tangle with the leaves of neighbors.

A tree with a child’s uncombed hair

Where vines climb

And moss points the way home.

Where survival is both fight and collaboration

In the struggle, we share all we have.

In a storm, the forest trembles together

The one shelters the other

And no tree quakes alone

Where My Spirit Lives

My spirit—you know, that intangible part of me that’s connected with God—I’m not sure it lives inside me. Sometimes I think it’s as if I made her a little house out front. Like a birdhouse, pretty and ornate, but probably too small, now that I think of it.

I go out and visit my spirit every day, sometimes a lot. It’s very important to me. Sometimes it sends me back with little gifts, like flowers that I put on the table and draw strength from, and bask in their beauty.

But I don’t invite my spirit inside. Well, sometimes for a tour or a cup of tea. But not to live here. She lives near. She is part of my life.

But what if she were inside and saw me, head in hands, drowning in depression? Would she have something to say?

Or if I said, “Yes, yes, I’ll do this or that,” to please someone else, when I knew the promise would compromise me—what if my spirit saw that?

What would my spirit do when she watched me sitting at the computer, lonely, longing for love and thinking that it comes from outside of me?

What does she think of my physical exercise—is she present? Does she come along for the walk, and jog when I jog? Does she surround my body and take pleasure in the feel of strength and sweat?

Why do I leave my spirit outside in her little house when I’m worried about where I’m going to live or what is going to happen to my family? Would she not comfort me?

Why don’t I let her in, with her golden connection with God? Why don’t I let myself feel my heart full of Divine Love that pours and pours until I can’t hold any more and then it still keeps pouring?

Why don’t I let her be my advocate, and feel her tangible confidence protecting me when I need someone to tell me, “It’s okay to say no.”

What would it feel like if I let my spirit live throughout my body, see through my eyes, notice the sounds that I normally ignore? What if I lived from that place of unity with my spirit instead of just going to visit?

 

P. S. Dear friends, please take this as metaphor, not theology. It’s about realizing that I often forget that my spirit, intertwined with God, is my life, not just an intimate part of my life.

Photo by Valerie Everett

“There’s a problem with the baby,” said the doctor, pressing the ultrasound probe to my belly. It was 2002, and I was 16 weeks pregnant, at the hospital for a normal prenatal checkup. I looked over at Steve. I could tell from his face that he understood that “problem” was a euphemism. The baby was dead.

The next piece of news was almost as bad. I was too far along for a D&C. I had to go home and wait for labor to start. A midwife told me to try not to think about it. Right.

Not only did I fail to distract myself effectively, I obsessed about this dead baby I was carrying. I felt like I couldn’t grieve, couldn’t say good bye, couldn’t move on. I was sad, but what I felt most was out of control. I so badly wanted this ordeal to be over.

I didn’t put this into words, but looking back, I can see that somewhere deep down I believed that if I prayed hard enough and often enough, if I wanted it enough, if I used enough mental and emotional energy, that somehow I could end the torture of waiting.

For two weeks I agonized over continuing to carry my lifeless child. Then the doctor decided to try to induce labor. I spent the weekend in the hospital hooked up to an IV, waiting for labor to start. At one point I was weeping under the weight of it all, and a nurse told me, “Don’t cry. You’ll give yourself a headache.”

The induction didn’t work. I went home again, still praying and straining with all my emotional might, as if I could do something.

About a week later, something clicked. I realized that ending this ordeal was truly not in my hands. Instead of praying that I would go into labor NOW, I started affirming that I released the timing into God’s hands. I made myself a mix tape (yeah, this was a while ago) of songs about release, surrender, and God being into control, and I listened to it over and over. When the ache of not being able to do anything hit, I came back again and again to opening my hands in a gesture of letting go.

The last week of waiting was actually peaceful. One month after finding out the baby was dead, I finally went into labor. I had previously wondered how women handled labor when they knew there would be no live child to hold on the other side. That wasn’t an issue. My experience is that labor pains fill our vision and we can’t think of the future, whether beautiful or tragic.

We saw our baby. I remember how each tiny rib stood out under the purple-grey skin, how the eyes were closed and the head a little misshapen from too long in a temporary grave.

The waiting was over. We could say good bye to our baby, and life could go on.

In another post, I talked about how during depression, something beautiful is growing, hidden in the darkness. But this gestating beauty often has a twin—death that is waiting to be released.  The birth of newness and the letting go of death both create labor pains that eclipse the view of what’s ahead.

Though unseen during depression (as in labor), a future still exists. That future holds the relief of final good byes to parts of our lives we have been needlessly carrying, and the future holds the emergence of new life that would have been unimaginable before going through the depths.

To me, these thoughts are gifts from a painful experience. The hope of both release and beauty occasionally peeks through the darkness of depression and encourages me. May these thoughts encourage you as well.

Photo by Jon Ovington, CC License

Hope in Depression

Gestation of Darkness
(This is a silhouette of a pregnant woman in case you can’t tell)

I have recently been in the midst of the most severe bout of depression of my life. That’s saying a lot, for those of you who knew me 6 or 7 years ago. Part of how I have been helping myself is to draw almost every day. I’m not sure I’d call it art, but it is therapeutic.

When we are depressed, our bodies and everything around us seem consumed with darkness. But, because of my previous experiences of depression, I believe that hidden deep in the blackness is beauty that is growing and waiting to emerge. (It took me about two months and a hospital stay to start believing this again, so I’m not saying hope comes naturally in depression.)

In my first significant experience of depression as an adult, I experienced a deep knowledge of God accompanying me in my suffering. In my second depression, which also marked the beginning of what I would call the Dark Night of the Soul, I found all the foundations of my life unravelling. But most significantly, what unravelled (and still is coming undone, honestly) was a lot of unhealthy and unhelpful ways of relating to God. This period of time started opening space in my life for new appreciation of mystery, a reluctant willingness to face uncertainty, and a new practice of courage and authenticity both with myself and with others. These painful periods of my life have changed me for the better. And I’m beginning to believe that good change is on its way this time too.

That hidden gestation of beauty in the darkness is what I was trying to capture in my sketch this morning. And I wondered if it might give hope to someone else as well. I would love to hear in the comments if it means something to you.

From my heart to yours,

Christen

Am I the Enemy?

I’m going to make up a Bible story.

Once upon a time, Jesus was teaching his disciples, saying, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Ok that part is real; it’s in Matthew 5…the rest I’m making up.) But someone in the crowd, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “But who is my enemy?”

Now, in my story, if I was more creative, Jesus would tell a really great parable that turns the question on its head, asking the crowd, “Who am I treating as an enemy?”

If we try to answer that question, we may note that our killing sprees are infrequent, and we no longer push people down on the playground. We would probably find ourselves repenting over ways that we have treated a spouse like an enemy, or ways that we bulldozed our son’s boundaries, or spoke harshly to a coworker. But I’d like to go a bit beyond that to ways that I have seen myself treating people as enemies in the past.

You know how we don’t really notice the aroma of home until we’ve been away, or how our hometown landscape is invisible to us until we’ve lived in a different place? Well, I noticed something about American Christian culture when I moved toBahrain. I noticed that Christians feel like a lot of groups are their enemies, even though we don’t call them that.

American Christians often feel like a small, persecuted minority. Other people don’t see us that way. In fact, others can feel overwhelmed by the strength and prominence of the Christian presence inAmerica. Christians feel like others have an agenda to take away their freedom of religion, and Christians feel the need to defend themselves. Others feel that Christians fight to have their own rights trump the rights of other groups.

Some of these feelings lead Christians to feel that we are being attacked. But we don’t call those people enemies. Sometimes I wish we would. I wish Christians would just say, “Yeah, I think (fill in the blank–Muslims, Democrats, gays, atheists, immigrants, or non-Christians) are our enemies. I think they are intentionally trying to destroy our way of life.” Because if Christians would admit that we think people are our enemies, wouldn’t we have to make the connection that Jesus told us to love those people?

But suppose we don’t ask “Who is my enemy?” Suppose we ask, “Am I acting like an enemy?”

Maybe we would see that we take whole groups of people and the individuals in that group, and we assume negative intentions on their part, and then treat them accordingly. We might discover that we don’t really listen to others’ perspectives, but insist on believing that we know what they “truly” believe, or what their “real” agenda is. We might find out that when we say things like “love the sinner, but hate the sin,” we have no idea how deeply we are hurting the so-called “sinners.” Especially when “loving the sinner” is theoretical, whereas “hating the sin” is well-practiced and oft-articulated.

I want you to know that I’m writing this because I feel deeply grieved over the ways in which I have done these things. I have valued rightness over kindness, honored evangelism over unconditional love, and held so tightly to my foundation of certainty that I wasn’t able to truly respect people who believed or lived differently from me. It took some pretty big (and painful) paradigm shifts in my life to see how unloving I could be at times—especially when I thought I was being loving.

I would love it if you would share your thoughts about who we treat as enemies.

Photo by Aislinn Ritchie, CC license

This says,"I am Muslim, and I love my Christian brothers and sisters."

Men kept touching me. They have this way of reaching out in the middle of a crowd and brushing your body in inappropriate places without ever looking your way. Then you doubt yourself, because no one looks like they did it on purpose. But it’s too targeted and personal to be an accidental touch.

I had only been in Bahrain about a year, but I knew that none of my friends were having this problem with guys. I was doing everything I could to dress and behave modestly and appropriately. But it kept happening.

One night I was home alone and the doorbell rang. We had an intercom, like everyone else, but I couldn’t understand the person on the other end. I went out my front door and unlocked the gate to find a Pakistani man standing there. “Give chance. Give chance,” he said. I thought he wanted to wash my car.

After several attempts to communicate, he asked, “Russia?” “No…America,” I answered, puzzled. I closed the gate, and by the time I got inside it dawned on me—he thought I was a Russian prostitute. I was stunned, and also ashamed and nervous. Why would he think I was a prostitute? Was he watching the house to know that I was alone? Was I safe? Were there others?

Several days later he came back. I ran up to my roof to see over the wall and confirm that it was him again. I called my neighbor, a Bahraini man with several daughters who I knew would help. He called the police and came over and held onto the man until the police came. I was really shaken. And all the police questioning makes you feel like it’s your fault.

Funny, even writing this now, I wonder, will people think this was my fault? I felt that shame much more back then–because women often feel that way, because Middle Eastern culture tends to put responsibility on the woman in these kinds of incidents, and maybe mostly because I was trying so hard not to draw attention to myself, to be above reproach in that culture.

As these incidents added up, they started to weigh on me. I was nervous. My stomach would knot when I pulled up behind a truck full of Pakistani workers. The stares unnerved me. I felt jumpy dealing with men at shops or in the souq.

After a while, some ideas started to rise up inside of me. Two Bible verses became mantras to me, not just to say them, but to imagine them. One was “The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” (Proverbs 18:10) I would imagine God as a tower with strong walls all around me, and it helped me to feel safe. The other verse was “But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the one who lifts my head high.” (Psalm 3:3) In many ways the hijab, or veil, is a symbol of honor and protection for a woman.* But my physical coverings didn’t seem to be doing their job. So with this verse I actually pictured God wrapping a cloak around me that hid me from those who wanted to take advantage of me. The part about God being the lifter of my head helped me let go of some of the shame I had been feeling.

These practices, done consistently every time I felt uncomfortable or frightened helped me recover a feeling of safety and security. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to move from feeling protected to actively loving. So there was another component to my practice. As is often the case, my fears had generalized to all men of similar ethnic origins. So it wasn’t just a handful of people who hurt me that I was now afraid of—it was lots of people. So every time I felt uncomfortable I would ask God to bless those people that I was afraid of—I would try to desire from my heart  that God would do good things for them.

Recently I have been thinking about how negative experiences with a few people can grow to become anger toward and fear of a whole group of people. It happens all over the world, but my heart particularly aches when I see this happen between Muslims and Christians.

Individual hurts have taken place when Americans have been affected by terrorism, when Muslims have been bullied or hurt by hate crimes, when people from each group try to convert each other in disrespectful ways, and when we assume the worst about each other. But those hurts that happen on an individual level, or on a small-group level become culturally ingrained fears, prejudices, and inability to love.

There is no magic formula for overcoming these hurts, because they affect us each individually in different ways. I shared my story as just one example. For me, the emotional touch points were fear and shame. It’s important for each person to invite healing into their lives in a way that is personally meaningful, in the way that your gut tells you you most need it, and then to turn around that healing toward the people who hurt you, even toward their whole ethnic or religious group.

My story ends with a dramatic, but not immediate transformation. I had to keep the practice up for a significant period of time before I noticed that I was settling into a feeling of safety and love again, but it was a big change from the fear and anxiety that I had been experiencing.

Do you have stories of seeing this kind of change happen in you? Do you have experiences that you would like to see turned around from hurt to love? Tell us about it in the comments.

*Note: Yes, there are ways the hijab can be used negatively as well—it is a mixed bag that is experienced differently by different women, but I think it’s important to understand that it can have positive connotations.

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

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