we spend our life trying to become, but the beauty is in the unbecoming

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October 29, 2017

Marigolds and Sequoias

Earlier this year, when two of my dear grandparents were sick and work's burden weighed on my spirit, I declared in a moment of frenzy, "We need flowers for the patio!" As if annuals would solve life's problems, Jeremy dutifully drove me to the hardware store where I purchased Marigolds, Begonias and one basil plant, with hope that, this time, the basil would make it longer than a week. I spent that afternoon potting flowers and listening to podcasts, in what felt like an act of defiance against the stress.

After the initial planting and as life calmed down, I cultivated the habit of wandering outside and meticulously checking the plants for signs of new life: inconspicuous blooms or tiny green leaves. I'd step out daily with a carafe of water to slosh over the natural bouquets; the work of watering and dead-heading these flowers felt easy and predictable. Look for new flowers, rip off dead flowers, water everything, and repeat.

Not long after tending to my annuals, Jeremy and I vacationed in Northern California. The trees are massive. We hiked deep into the forests of Yosemite, at times alone for what felt like hours. Felled trees criss-crossed the floor of the forest, serving as breeding grounds for saplings and a comfortable place to rest our out-of-shape legs. At the tail end of vacation, I picked up a copy of The Secret Life of Trees. As the author explains, trees communicate with each other, nurture one another, and grow best in community with other trees (i.e. forests).

Last December, a friend gifted me a "grow your own Christmas tree" kit, part gag gift and partly because she knew I would love it. I carefully prepared those seeds for germination. To my delight, the seeds sprouted and grow tiny trunks and branches.

Earlier this week, that same friend passed along The Practice of the Presence of God to me. This short book describes Catholic Brother Lawrence's ability to find joy and purpose in simple daily tasks. In one of the opening pages, the reader learns that Brother Lawrence first devoted his life to God after gazing upon a barren, winter tree. The author writes, "seeing a tree stripped of it's leaves, and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed...he received a high view of the providence and power of God, which has never since been efface from it's soul." Barren trees bloom again.

Autumn has finally arrived in DC today, and raindrops splashed against the branches. The air smelled of wet earth during my walk, both refreshing and unexpected in the city. As I dodged puddles, I noticed the roots of the trees digging themselves deeply and widely into the cement, with no care for urban planning or mulched-off boundaries.

How inherently dependent yet resilient plants are. Old flowers wither, making way and providing nutrients for new ones. Little acorns flourish into trees older than time. Forests defy climate change and human destruction to live in community, while also cleaning our air and stabilizing ecosystems.

Tiny, packaged pine tree seeds use the coolness of my fridge, store bought soil, and D.C. tap water to grow into trunks and branches. Persistent tree roots carve out the space they need through the concrete of city sidewalks. Winter trees show no signs of life; yet this first appearance deceives, as trees remain fully awake beneath their bark. Trees and plants have no control over season's length; they have no choice but to greet the elements each day with the rising sun. Basil plants die after a week. (It's inevitable.)

October 22, 2017

A Call

I can’t tell if that voice that cries,
is mine, or God’s, or their’s.
But it’s loud reverberation calls to me.

I can’t tell if that whisper that persuades,
“No more!”
is true, or convoluted, or false.
But it’s quiet strength calls to me.

I can’t tell if that concern in my core that nags,
“Speak up!”
is brave, or expected, or terrified.
But it’s steady persistence calls to me.

I can’t tell if the sleepless night that begs
“Confront it!”
is clear, or anxious, or exhausted.
But it’s dissatisfied ache calls to me.

I can’t tell if I want the ethical choice to be 
easy or hard,
confusing or clear,
loud or soft,
gentle or harsh.
I can’t tell, but I know that it calls to me.

A Time You've Confronted Evil

I’ve protested, donated, rallied,
knocked on doors,
called my representatives, sent letters,
marched, fasted, and prayed.

I’ve advocated

for women, children, refugees,
People of Color, the poor, 
and the LGBTQ+ community.

I’ve written 

poems of injustice,
blogs calling out selfishness,
and Tweets against violence.

I’ve grieved 

at the Syrian border over the cost of war, 
and on the phone comforting a friend whose baby is dying. 

I’ve held the hands 

of the sick who are passing from this life to the next, 
and of women delivering babies who are passing from that life to this.

I’ve done this all 

just north of political correctness, 
and just west of having 
any sort of real risk involved.

I’ve resisted evil,

but I’m not convinced 
that resistance without sacrifice 
is confronting it.

Who Do You Say I Am? (March 2017, Israel)

Thanks to all who followed along on my journey to Israel, which feels much more like a beginning than an end. While on our trip, we made a stop at Caesarea Philippi, which our tour guide equated to a modern day Las Vegas–a real “sin city.” It was at that place that Jesus famously inquires to the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” 
That is a darn good question, Jesus. Who have I said that you are? Many times, I have felt close to God and the Holy Spirit, but not Jesus. I don’t think you are supposed to have favorite parts of the Trinity, but I’m just being honest. My range of Jesus love has gone from sporting neon WWJD bracelets as an early teen, to embracing the term “Christ Follower” instead of Christian during my more evangelical college years, to working at a place with a statue of Jesus out front named after the big JC. Despite these run-ins with Jesus, I found him confusing, and I didn’t really agree with most things his modern followers do “in his name.” (See my church post.) Even though he said smart things, I did not really understand why he had to die in order for me to love God. So, there you have it, doubting Thomasette over here, wondering what the heck to make of Jesus.
And then I got to Israel. Many holy spots, especially in Jerusalem, are guesstimations for where stuff happened. Examples include the location of the crucifixion, the last supper, and his tomb. Scholars have done the best they can with ancient accounts of Jesus’ life to pick realistic spots. Constantine’s mom, Helena, also picked some holy spots; but TBH, I don’t really trust her judgement.
Despite the rough approximation of where actual events happened, this is what I can tell you after spending the last two weeks in the green hills surrounding Galilee, traveling down through the Jordan Valley, and moving up to Jerusalem.
1. Jesus was a pacifist. The Jews were waiting for a military leader to free them from oppression. Can we blame them?! They are an oppressed people, even today. So when Jesus came and said stuff like “love your enemies as yourself” and “turn the other cheek,” this was not the military leader the Jews were waiting for.
2. Jesus and his followers protested. To the Jewish people, palms were a holy symbol of their religion. When they carried and waved palms on Palm Sunday to greet Jesus, it was like an old school protest against the Romans.
3. Jesus valued down time. See my post regarding the importance of “soul care.”
4. Jesus put others before himself. He healed, helped, listened, taught, cooked, cleaned (mostly feet), among other activities of daily living. These are tangible things we can still do today. 
Picturing the gentle yet bold humanity of Jesus in Israel has made me so intrigued and captivated by his spirit. And that spirit is the Holy Spirit, which is God in us. And these examples don’t even touch the whole dying so I might live deal.
I will always struggle with the idea of Jesus being the “path” to God. This question has plagued me since I was young, and I don’t think it will be answered for me anytime soon. (Sorry people who think I’m going to hell for saying this. Pray for my soul.) 
What I can tell you is that Jesus is the path to God I choose. It’s a path that is treacherous AF (life sucks sometimes), but it’s lined with a whole bunch of grace, love, and other people helping each other up along the way. It’s a path that is forgiving and takes everyone from the slave, to the prostitute, to the betrayer, to the poor man, to the crippled. He loves people regardless of their skin color, political affiliation, socioeconomic status, ethnic background, gender, and sexual orientation. That is a whole lot of love, and I am grateful for His example.

Rebuilding the Temple (March 2017, Israel)

My devotional to my travel group from the last day.
We’ve spent a lot of time the last few days speaking about the significance of the Temple within culture. It was a place of holy refuge, of common hope, and of ancient tradition. In this passage (John 2:13-22), we see the prophesy of the destruction of the physical temple and its rebuilding as a spiritual space through Jesus. This passage teaches that church is not confined to a physical place anymore.
This got be thinking about the role of the church in my life. I grew up in the Lutheran church, and when I went off to college, started attending a large church. I used that time to strengthen my faith but found out later that this denomination does not ordain women as head pastors. I found that to be hurtful as a woman of faith, and when I moved back home after college for a year, I found myself feeling betrayed by the church that was supposed to love everyone equally. After that year back at home, I felt the call to quit my job and join Americorps for a year of service. I packed up two suitcases and backpack and moved to D.C. to serve as a nurse at a homeless shelter. While there, I got connected to a church startup–a small nondenominational church that I love very much. However, despite my love for this church, I began questioning some of its values as it relates to equal acceptance of all people regardless of LGBTQ+ status. Some people would call my grievance a difference in theology, but it has been a painful process to find dissonance within this community. 
A week before this trip, I was on a spiritual retreat and prayed in anticipation of our upcoming pilgrimage to Israel: “Lord, I have this burning love for you and do not doubt your omnipotence, but I do not trust your church.” As if he knew exactly what was needed, the Lord gathered the 22 of you up (my fellow travelers) and said, “these are the people Mari needs to be her church in Israel.”
Over the last few months, church has risen to meet me in funny places. I sometimes find it in the back row of a Baptist church with a female head pastor, whose very presence at the pulpit reconciles earlier pains I’ve felt by the squandering of women in the church. Other Sunday mornings, I find community in the church service connected to the homeless shelter where I work, worshipping next to my predominantly homeless patients. I feel church deeply on Thursday nights, as I sit with a small group of twenty- and thirty-somethings, debating theology over a beer and praying for each other. 
I feel like God is using this transition in my “church life” to reinforce this concept of the church not as one physical place, but as a fellowship of believers connected under God through Jesus. It can happen anywhere. 
One of the many gifts our faith gives us is the ability to be in community with fellow believers. I know I could not do it alone. My prayer for each of us is that we continue to seek Jesus first and to love of all our brothers and sisters with the same grace that Jesus shows us. This is a big prayer. It includes loving people of different faiths, welcoming the stranger from the foreign land, and being the good Samaritan to the victim of robbery laying on the road outside of Jericho. It’s a messy, inconvenient, and persistent love that we are asked to share. It’s the same love Jesus first gave each of us. And it’s the same love he professes for his church in the gospel.
Thank you to you all for being my church these last ten days.

The Arrival (Israel, March 2017)

The first people God told about the birth of Jesus were the homeless shepherds living in caves outside of Jerusalem – He thought that was important. 

Suffering, God & Me (March 2017, Israel)

I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering this trip. I’ve spoken already to the plight of the refugees in Syria. We’ve been reading the stories of the sick, dead and crippled that Jesus healed along the way in his ministry around Jerusalem and Galilee. As an NP (and RN at heart), I see sick people every day at work, and try to use the tools I have to provide relief. Sometimes I do a great job at it, and other times, it feels heavy and like a job and like there is nothing in the tank to give.
I think of suffering when I see the fallen temple remains in Jerusalem, with the women who cry at the Western Wall to this day, pleading with God to provide relief. I see the suffering of the homeless we passed in the Jewish Quarter, who make me think of my people at Christ House. 
I think about how hard it is for me to believe in God sometimes, when the world feels broken like a pile of sadness, much like the ruins of the temple.
Other days, when taking a break from the sadness, it’s not even relaxing. It was fun floating and bopping around in the Dead Sea, but at what expense of life came my freedom to do so in this sacredly disputed place? (Don’t be fooled, I had a great time there, but this thought passed me mind.)
And then I think of Jesus. Smarter theologians can correct me on this, but the stories I see of his healing often happened one person at a time. He focused on the suffering of the person right in front of him. He did not feel guilty about taking a night away from his friends to pray or meditate. He took naps in the sun while chilling on the lake. He made lunch and laughed with his friends. He hung out with kids who taught him to chill out. He called upon teachings he learned at the Temple to give him words when he felt hopeless. One of my pastors calls these restorative acts “soul care.” Jesus did not do them because it was trendy like the latest yoga class. He did them because it was literally the only way to keep the energy to be present to the suffering right in front of him. 
We are humans which means we are flawed. Some days I do this holy living thing like a boss, and other days, I am the example of what not to do. I’m grateful that I have the grace of a God who gets my limitations, kicks my butt back into gear through restorative acts of rest, and then says, “Mari, go see your patients, be presents to each, one at a time.”

Syria: Why it's Holy Land on My Trip to the Holy Land (March 2017, Israel)

We had another successful day on the road, pimping it in our coach bus with wifi. You’re not supposed to eat snacks on the bus, so obviously I spilled my Mike & Ikes on the floor, which rolled as we climbed through the hills around the Sea of Galilee. 
Today, we visited the ancient gate of Dan and its ruins – pic posted earlier today. The gate allegedly dates back 4000 years to the time of Abraham, the grandpa of our common religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam).
We then climbed the Golan Heights and received a history lesson on the borders of Israel, why they are so contested, and why they continue to be disputed today. That’s a good conversation to have in person rather than via a blog, so more on that next time I see you.
Our Golan Heights experience culminated at Kofi Annan (Coffee in the Clouds, loosely translated), a café located at the top of the Heights at the site of a former Israeli bunker. UN soldiers still occupy this site, keeping watch on the Syrian border as they sip their local brew, chat with tourists, and smoke cigarettes.
Our guide pointed out the Road to Damascus (its general direction) as well as the bombed remnants of Syrian towns at the border. The views of this lush land swept for miles, and it was apparent why the vantage point of these Heights was so important to Israel and its neighbor Syria.
You guys. Syria. The group gathered around our guide–and she relayed the basic facts of the refugee crisis. A million refugees in Turkey. A million in Lebanon. A million in Jordan. Another million or so dispersed among Egypt, Iraq, Europe and beyond. No one wants them. No one cares much about the crisis because Syria is poor and does not have oil.
I sat at this privileged view of Syria with a fancy coffee shop behind me. At that point in space and place, mere miles separated me and my fellow “pilgrims” from rape, death, torture, war, and destruction. The sun felt warm on my cheeks as I squinted to see how far I could see into Syria. I could see this neighboring country, but I could not see the war from this high place. I thought, if I could get to the ground, drive a bit, then I could see. Obviously I did not do that, but it reminded me that the greatest problems cannot be observed from high up, away from the suffering. You have to go down to truly see.
Well, you people know me well enough to know that tears flow out of me in times like this. Thank God our dear family friend was by me. He let me cry and didn’t tell me it would be okay, because it’s not. Brother saw me from afar, and he knew why I was crying even though we did not exchange a word. He went to the coffee shop and ordered me a cup, giving me the gift of time to sit and wrestle this.
Friends, I don’t know how to go down to Syria. I think money given to solid organizations helps, but it’s not the only answer. Prayer to whatever higher power you entrust the great restlessness of life helps too, but what is prayer without the feet to accompany it? God gave feet to his mission in the form of Jesus, so why would he expect our feet to stay put?
I think back to the Beatitudes, and I firmly hold to the idea that the refugee is blessed. My prayer is that, just as we are undeserving of the general wellbeing we have been given, we are reminded that the Syrian refugees are equally undeserving of their suffering. That the death of one part humanity is the death of us all.
(Photo is of Syria, and of a sign at the Heights, pointing to Washington DC, reminding me that we are not as far from this crisis and we think.)

Capernum (March 2017, Israel)

I’m struck by the story of the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof when Jesus came home to Capernaum. First, Jesus was from Nazareth, but Capernaum was his home? Shout out to all of us who find home away from our place of birth, who experience love from our adopted urban family. Second, I always thought the reason the paralyzed man even bothered to have his besties lug him on a mat to see Jesus was because he wanted to walk again. But in truer translation, it is actually because he was so interested in what Jesus had to say, that his friends wanted him to physically here Jesus’ words. The walking again was unexpected. (at Capernaum- The town of Jesus)

Beatitudes Remixed (March 2017, Israel)

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Blessed are those who have given up on life. Blessed are those who fear life has given up on them. Blessed are those who feel abandoned.)
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Blessed are the children who teach us love has no bounds. Blessed are the women who are told they are worth less. Blessed are those enslaved by their fellow man.)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Blessed are the sex workers. Blessed are the food insecure. Blessed are those who remind us that our worth is defined by love and not by money. Blessed are those in prison and those on death row.)
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be show mercy. (Blessed are those who give others second chances. Blessed are we who need second chances.)
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Blessed are those in the LGBTQ community who know love beyond male and female. Blessed are the homeless. Blessed are people of all political backgrounds.)
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Blessed are the pacifists and the activists. Blessed are the stewards of our physical earth. Blessed is the refugee.)
Blessed are those persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
(Blessed are you. And blessed am I.)