Searching for Rachel

On Saturday morning, while boarding a cruise ship with my mother, the world received word that Rachel Held Evans died.

I never had the pleasure of knowing her in real life but, as a friend said, she was one of our friends. It’s a paradox that is sometimes created in the written world(s) of publishing, church, and social media — that a public figure, though technically a stranger, feels like a friend. We tweeted in the same circles. Our writer relationships overlapped. And, perhaps most significantly, we fought for each other — her fighting for inclusion and acceptance of women in religious leadership (as well as a much wider inclusion that made room for all sorts of people pushed out of church by evangelicalism), and us fighting to amplify her voice by sharing her work with our congregations when her books didn’t make it to the shelves of christian bookstores.

Friends fight for each other. So stranger or not, we were friends. And since the first texts hit my phone to share the terrible news, I’ve felt bereft. Surrounded by the nonstop uproarious faux joy of this cruise, I find myself retreating to quiet corners of the ship where there is enough stillness to grieve her.

This morning I reported to the onboard spa for a salt scrub that had been scheduled months ago. In the midst of that frivolous experience, I caught a glimpse of the tomb. With a strip of gauzy fabric pulled snug across my eyes, the kind technician tended to my body, anointing it for life in much the same way I imagine the women anointed Jesus’ body for burial. Scents, salves, a simple white sheet — with the application of each my mind wandered further into the tomb, searching for her.

Somewhere in the midst of that anointing, I heard her — or at least a whisper of what sounded like her writing voice. With the same encouragement she lavished on others in life, she exhorted us writers and preachers to step into the breach caused by untimely, unfair death, and to simply WRITE. Write for the sisters who continue to come after us as well as those who went before us. Write for our daughters and our sons. Write for the Kin-dom of God. Write because life depends upon the courage of everyday women and men of valor who partner with God both imperfectly and bravely.

I can’t presume to translate this paradoxical friendship into showing up for the real and primary grief of her husband, children, and in-person friends. But I can honor her work, her passion, her voice, her fierce faithfulness by using my own tiny platform to keep on writing and preaching and welcoming — and so can you. Let that be the gift we give in thanks to God for her life and work.

Rest in power and rise in glory, dear Rachel. In life, in death, and in new life with Christ, you are and ever will be a woman of valor.

It’s Complicated…

This week we missed another baby shower. 

This time it was a shower for two dear friends who are expecting their first child any day now.  I wanted to be there, planned on it even.  But then I fell apart in the baby section of Target while shopping for their gift.  As the tendrils of panic attack squeezed around my chest and throat, I knew it wasn’t the day to go.

It’s complicated.  

Last November we got the final, echoing news: premature ovarian failure.  I’m 38, but my ovaries think I’m at least a decade older. That means that, along with practically no chance of conceiving a child, I also get hot flashes and all the other joys of early menopause. Yippee.

The grief of this is hard enough. We feel called to parenthood so strongly that the ache is both physical and perpetual, but biological children aren’t an option. No little one with Chuck’s eyes or my chin. No sonogram pictures or cute Facebook announcements and gender reveals. Hell, I grieve morning sickness and lost sleep, because those experiences would at least mean we’re expecting. 

But it’s not just the grief of it. 

Infertility complicates so much. For one thing, it makes friendships harder. I’m hoping this wears off with time, but right now it’s hard to hang out with friends when all they talk about are their kids or their plans for when it is their “turn” to announce a pregnancy. 

Don’t misunderstand: I am so glad for friends as they grow their families. Their joy matters. I want the best for them, but right now need to celebrate from a distance. My happiness for them doesn’t erase the knowledge that we don’t get a “turn”.  That hurts. Sometimes unbearably.

The hurt is only exacerbated by all the religious language that gets attached to pregnancy.  Every time someone comments on how God has blessed them with children and every time someone tells me I “just” need to pray a certain way in order to receive that blessing, I’m reminded of the YEARS of prayer that either God hasn’t heard or has responded to with a resounding “no.”  Or, perhaps God doesn’t work that way. It could be that.  Regardless, we’re both pastors and the absolute worst things that have been said to us over the last year about our infertility have all been said by other pastors. 

Like I said, it’s complicated. 

Infertility is an isolating experience. Introvert though I am, I’ve never stayed home as much as I have in the last year.  Chuck hides out as well. It’s a matter of self-preservation. Social interactions are filled with too many questions and too many triggers. Well-meaning friends seem to expect us to have moved on, or to be filled to the brim with happy hope as we prepare for adoption. But the journey towards adoption is a minefield in and of itself, with frequent reminders that we must prove our worthiness to do what so many others do with seemingly little thought.

Again, it’s complicated. 

We ARE hopeful and excited about adoption. As the long home study process unfolds, in the midst of all the hurdles, we catch glimpses of a future where we finally get to meet the child I currently think of as Little One. That future is beautiful and scary, hopeful and despairingly far off, joyful and uncertain. 

In the meantime, there are good days as well as bad. We’re surrounded by people who genuinely love us and are rooting for us, even if they say things that are unintentionally hurtful. Church folk are rallying to help with the fundraising for our adoption. People are praying for us and our one-day child. 

My point in posting this is twofold. First, I’ve not written about infertility and feel it’s time to do so. The resounding silence of it clogs up every other vein of writing in my life, and I NEED to write. For my D.Min.  For my calling.  For my spirit. 

Second, though infertility is experienced by so many (the numbers are increasing rapidly for a variety of reasons) there is still such a high level of shame and silence attached to it. Speaking (or writing) into the silence is a way to lessen that shame.  Perhaps by owning up to this struggle, someone else will feel less alone.  

Perhaps by shining light on it, we will feel less alone too.


*Note* – While I’m usually a proponent of open discussion, this post is too personal and vulnerable for it to be fully fair game. Any comment in which we are told how we should or should not feel will be summarily deleted.  Likewise, we already know the biblical stories about miraculous children after years of infertility.  I know in my bones why Sarai/Sarah laughed, I’ve prayed Hannah’s prayer with tears in my eyes and ashes in my mouth, and I’ve yearned for Elizabeth’s joy. Please save those stories for another occasion. Thanks in advance.       -Lara

Some Truth About Rape

Spoiler alert:  This may be overkill.  Most of us are now fully immersed in election-overload, and the thought of reading one more rant about politics may be too much to handle.  It may also be too personal for you.  If that’s the case, that’s fine.  Don’t read it.  Today I write for myself.

This week I have come to realize a few important things about myself and the ways I’ve been personally affected by this election cycle:

  1. The more the election cycle has heated up, the harder it has become for me to write.  Anything.  At all.
  2. At the same time, it has been harder and harder for me to read – especially the books on the history of women in Christianity that make up the assigned reading for my January D.Min fortnight. They are all on one of my favorite topics, but I’ve hardly been able to bring myself to read them.
  3. These emotional blocks have everything to do with the rhetoric of women and rape that has saturated our political discourse.

It has taken months to sift through the emotional sediment contributing to these blocks.  But earlier this week, while talking politics with one of my youth, everything clicked into place.  This depression, this funk I’ve been in, is about rape:  both my own, and rape/sexual assault “in general”.

An appalling number of the women I have worked with, young and old, have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.  I’m one of those women.  You wouldn’t know it by looking at us – the scars are buried deep inside.  We haven’t forgotten – even if our minds would let us, our bodies won’t allow us to forget.  So we’ve tucked the wounds away in a special holding cell – not so that we can avoid the pain, but so that we can function; so that we can heal; so that we can love and hope and dream; so that we can be the women God has called us to be.

The hurt usually hibernates under the surface.  But in a usual world, on a usual day, the topic of rape isn’t brought up – at least not in polite company.  When things are as they usually should be, you can turn on the television and not be slapped with phrases like “legitimate rape”.  On a normal day, politicians don’t talk about how some women “rape easy”.  In election cycles of the past, we haven’t had to witness arguments about the level of violence and brutality required in order for a rape to be “real”.

In this election cycle, we kicked “normal” and “usual” to the curb months ago.  And for some of us, the layers of protection and salve have been stripped back, allowing that pain to wake up and move closer and closer to the surface.  It’s become accessible, visible, tangible all over again.  We’ve started to relive our rape again and again.  With all the arguments over “legitimate rape”, this is especially true for those of us whose rapes “don’t make the cut” because they weren’t brutal or violent enough to count.  Those of us who weren’t beaten half to death, who didn’t have the opportunity, the undrugged motor skills, the physical strength, or the fight-response required to fight back – we not only relive our rapes, but we also relive the judgment of the people around us, the assumptions that we must be lying because we don’t have visible bruises.  Some of us relive our rapist’s sneering indictment that it doesn’t count as rape because “you’re my wife”, “you’re my girlfriend”, or “you should have just put out more in the first place.”  We relive it all.  Over. And. Over. Again.

Here’s the thing about rape:  rape simultaneously reinforces and destroys everything a woman or girl suspects about herself and her worth.  All that cultural crap about our value being tied to our bodies?  Our rapists confirm that with every unwanted touch or thrust, and at the same time they destroy us with the knowledge that while our value is in our breasts and between our legs – those things are ultimately worthless, deserving of nothing but violence and indignity.  Simultaneously we are told: you are your body, and your body is worthless – You are worthless.

This is what I wish these politicians and commentators knew.  Rape is about more than sex, and the abortion question doesn’t make their flippant conversations okay.  For the sake of this conversation, the abortion question is immaterial.  It helps politicians avoid responsibility for the violence perpetrated by these callous words about rape.  It enables us to turn a blind eye to the fact that when we talk about “rape” we separate it from the broken bodies and spirits of the women and men who have been violated, as though rape could exist without the victims.  Rape survivors ourselves come to different conclusions about abortion.  Pro-choice, pro-life, undecided – none of these viewpoints change the fact that the screwed up way we’ve been talking about rape hurts people.  It’s hurt me, it’s hurt the women with whom I minister, and I suspect it has hurt many many more.  It has got to stop, and no matter how important voting is (and I believe voting is critically important), voting alone won’t fix the problem.

I know that tonight we’re all preoccupied with the election.  But starting tomorrow, we’ve got to do better.

Celebration, Loss & Raccoons

*Kraccckthwump!*

It sounded for all the world like a bookshelf or other piece of furniture had toppled and crashed to the floor.  I ran into the living room, looking for the mess – only to find that everything was fine.  Chuck went into the basement in search of the offending stack of boxes – but found nothing.  Again, all appeared to be well.

Then the scratching started.  And the screeching.  And the mewing.

Something in our house was alive and inside the wall.

We went through the process of alerting the landlord and leaving messages for the local animal control agencies, but it was after 5pm.  Everything was closed for the day.  Eventually, we popped in earplugs, finished out the evening and went to sleep.

In the morning, all was silent.  For a moment.  But then Chuck went down to the basement to check on some laundry and there they were:  three baby raccoons.

Somehow, those fuzzy wobbly creatures had managed to work their way through the wall and into the basement while we slept.  One part vicious, three parts precious, they wriggled and mewed around the basement with a certain urgency, never stopping to rest or take in their surroundings.

The kids were looking for mom.

As it turns out, mom was no longer in the picture.  More than likely, during our big rainstorm her den was flooded and she made the decision to move the kids to higher, dryer ground.  The gap in our chimney seemed perfect, so one by one she lugged each wriggling cub up a tree, across the roof and up the chimney, stuffing them away where they would be safe.  After that, she left and, likely hit by a car, did not return.  The kids were on their own.  Not understanding, they began to search for her and, in their searching, they fell down a gap into our wall, ultimately winding up in our basement, hungry and alone.

——–

All week my heart has ached for those little raccoons.  Perhaps it’s because a dear friend recently lost her mother, or perhaps it’s because the hype of Mother’s Day always reminds me of all the people who grieve for mothers lost, mothers absent or neglectful, children gone or children never had.  Perhaps it’s all of that and more.  One way or the other, the thought of cubs lost in a dark and unknown place, thirsting for one who will not return…well, the thought destroys me.

It also convicts me.

So often, dear Church, we do a poor job of remembering these losses when this holiday rolls around.   We give out carnations or daisies to the moms in worship and, if we’re really sensitive and enlightened, we also present flowers to every sister, daughter, aunt and friend in the place.  No one is left out, except for the grief.

In the midst of our celebration, and our fear of truly acknowledging the ugly in the world while inside our safe sanctuaries, we sometimes miss the opportunity to name that unnamed guest in our midst: Loss.

The women taken in childbirth, lost to violence or addiction or mental illness, killed by car wrecks or cancer or other disease.  The children lost to SIDS, birth defects, illness or miscarriage.  The abortions.  The empty cradles caused by infertility.  All of these losses and more will be present in the pews this Sunday, silent specters whispering despair in the pauses between prayer and song.

And if we recognize them, if we name them gently and frankly within the space we’ve carved out for worship, it is holy.  There is no diminishing of our celebration and joy when we acknowledge those who have come before us and those who will not follow us.  Instead, having named that ghostly grief, we give it flesh – and the dry bones of those we loved and lost (or never had) can get up and dance, if only for a moment.

We are a resurrection people.  At our best, we know that death and loss and despair do not have the final word – but instead, there is hope for new life and reunion and joy within the Kin-dom of God.  But in order for resurrection to be possible, we must acknowledge death.  In order for joy to be made real, we must acknowledge despair and grief.   We must name them instead of avoiding them – even when it is frightening or unsettling to do so.

Avoidance and hope are poor dance partners.  They simply can’t sync up, moving to two entirely different beats.  So, as we compose and orchestrate our worship for this Mother’s Day, let’s not invite avoidance to the party.  We don’t have to be disingenuous or go overboard with our lamentations – but we do need to save some space for those we have lost.

In so doing, our celebration is not diminished but broadened because we honor the lives and gifts of women in all places and all times: mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, friends…and maybe even raccoons.

Utoya… (Memories and Hopes)

**Note**  I wrote this on July 22, 2011 – after hearing about the massacre that took place on Utoya that day.  Because I was at camp, and because I felt too raw to do anything beyond scribbling it out in longhand, the post didn’t make it here until today.  Much has come to light in the days that have followed, but this post does not reflect any of that information.

In 1999, the summer after my junior year of college, I was sent to Norway to represent the Council of Ecumenical Student Christian Ministries (CESCM) at a World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) conference held in honor of a milestone anniversary of the Norwegian Student Christian Movement.  Though I flew into Oslo and spent the afternoon finding my way through the city and its famous sculpture park, the event actually took place on a tiny island outside of the capital: Utoya.

It was the first time I traveled outside of the US completely on my own, the first time I was the only US student present in a large gathering of people from around the world, the first time I found myself in a position where there weren’t others who shared my assumptions, my norms, my cultural biases.  And it was the last time I traveled internationally before 9-11.  The experience was transformative…and it hurt.  

There were various speakers called in to discuss the concept of utopia and whether or not it has a place within Christian ecumenical dialogue/work.  The talks were fascinating, but not what I carried back with me when I returned home to Texas.  What’s stuck with me were the one on one conversations, the relationships formed in the in between times.

In between speakers and other scheduled activities, we had large spans of free time to mingle – time that turned into me fielding questions and accusations about the US government’s involvement in world affairs.  Whether I liked it or not, I was the only representative of the US on that island, so every question, every grievance fell in my lap.

In particular, a Serbian student named Lazar took every opportunity to lay into me for the NATO bombings in Serbia.  He’d never met an American, and I’d never met a Serbian.  We only knew what our respective news outlets and politicians were telling us – so it started off with some rough encounters.  There wasn’t much I could say because I was so ignorant of the situation, the history, the messiness of it all (on all sides).  He’d accuse, I’d listen.  He’d raise his voice as he recounted events I’d never heard of.  I’d quietly take it in, awash in disbelief or horror or anger or grief.    

Somewhere in those encounters, a miracle took place.  We became friends.  Noting my silence, Lazar started asking questions instead of lobbing accusations.  Together, we started wading through layers of propaganda, both Serbian and American.  Together, we discovered gray in the midst of black and white.  Together, we learned humility.

Transformation took place on that island.  Relational webs were woven from that point on the globe and stretched across borders, oceans, ideologies.  Dayanthi in Sri Lanka, Marcus in Finland, Thandiwe in Zambia, Lazar in Serbia, Moatlhudi in South Africa, Thorsten in Germany, Lara in the US…we (and many others) experienced a taste of what utopia might bring.  In those moments of listening, laughing, straining and stretching, we caught a shimmer of the Kin-dom of God.

—–

So much has changed in the years that have passed.  Though the world was never “safe” or “secure”, the specter of terror has crept into new markets.  That relational web still remains, but the ground beneath it has shifted and begun to crumble.  These last twelve years I’ve teetered between cynicism and hope – one moment knowing the hopes we shared on Utoya are a pipe dream, and another moment trusting that even in the worst of times the Kin-dom is still breaking into the world.  

And then, today, during nap time at our high school summer camp, I got word via Twitter of another attack.  Oslo is trending – a bomb has gone off in the city – and Utoya has also become a hashtag.  Today that island, upon which my life was changed, is stained with the blood of children – campers the same age as these teens sleeping around me.  Campers murdered by someone who would do anything to destroy these webs that draw us near to one another.

In the midst of this terrible news, and this consuming grief, I’m completely at a loss.  What can be done to counter such hatred?  What can be done when utopia is stained with the blood of so many innocent kids?  

I have no idea – except that I know the web must continue to be woven.  

Thy Kin-dom come…on earth as it is in heaven.