A Hopeless Election in a Kingdom of Hope

On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large, and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.
-Wendell Berry

Are you all tired yet? Of the election, I mean. What a silly question. Of course you are. We are all feeling the political fatigue of 2016. It has been a long, gruelling, and exhausting road to election day. More so than I’ve ever experienced in my short history of voting. And since we’re only 3 weeks away from November 8th, the political tenor has reached a feverish pitch. I don’t know if you’re like me at all, but I love politics and I love even more to talk about politics. Researching, commenting, and keeping up to date on our nation and it’s leaders is exciting and stimulating for me. And I love a good debate. But not this time. There is nothing exciting or fun about this election or any of the discourses surrounding it. The world seems to have closed in and it feels so very small. Suffocating. Hopeless.

I hope that I have built a strong enough of a rapport and a relationship with you, my readers, that I might share with you the hope that sustains me when I’m suffering and struggling most. At the risk of being an insufferable evangelical, may I breathe a moment of hope and peace into your mind today?

God is a god of love, peace, and justice, and no nation, political party, or leader can ever fully capture the social, moral, and ethical concerns of the Lord. Neither conservative, liberal or independent can ever care for the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, the alien, or the oppressed to the extent to which God has called us. That is to say, there is no one way to vote as a Christian. There is no candidate or party that fully embodies the concerns and commandments of God. He is far too big for any political agenda or national identity. And what a relief that is for us because there is no morally right or ethical vote this election. I believe that there is only one candidate this cycle who has shown herself to be qualified, and fit to serve as our president. And as a Christian, this means that I must be very critical of her and our nation as to how we address education, poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, sex, crime, etc. To be a Christian involved in politics is to not sell your soul to a political party or a national agenda, but to love what the Lord loves, and hate what the Lord hates. And there is no one issue that the Lord hates more than another, including the hot button conservative issues of abortion and gay marriage.  For, to love the Lord and do as he commands is to have a heart for those in the margins of our cultures:

“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs…You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.”
-Deuteronomy 15:7-8, 10-11

This is our hope: that the Lord, in our great need and depravity, came to earth and died for our sins so that we might have eternal life with him. And through his life, death, and resurrection, he has equipped us  with every good thing that we may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever (Hebrews 13:20-21). This is the hope and calling of the Christian, that we engage courageously, thoughtfully, and critically in politics and culture with our eyes focused on Jesus. There is no nation in the history of the world that has lasted the entirety of existence. Every nation rises and falls, but it is the Lord and his kingdom who lasts forever. And this should give us great hope. Who are you to believe that any president can thwart the will of God? That his sovereignty and goodness for us and his world is not big enough to right the wrongs of evil dictators and corruption? Neither Hillary or Trump can usurp the Lord’s throne and upset his divine will. Rather, it is the job of the Christian to speak truth and life into all areas of our politics and cultures and to be critical of how we engage with the commandment to act justly and love mercy (Micah 6:8).

For those of you who aren’t Christians reading this, thank you. I am honored to share with you what it is I believe and that you would listen. I’m sure that there are areas of my faith that I need to sharpen my understanding and that you don’t agree with. But, even so, I hope that my faith in Jesus may bless you and give you hope in some way today; that we don’t have to put our trust and hope in any political leader or nation, but rather in a God who has always been and who always will be.

When You Accidently Expose Yourself For Who You Really Are

When was the last time that you had one of those embarrassing moments where you did something wrong or acted in a way that exposed a part of yourself that you’d rather not have other people see? Perhaps you acted rudely, or said something mean to someone publically, or acted selfishly when you didn’t get your way, or you spoke too quickly and revealed that you are jealous. There are endless ways that this can manifest itself and it almost always leaves a pit of despair and desperation inside of us. We then conjure up ways to defend ourselves, make our reputations right again, shift the blame, gloss over the wrong that we have done, and do anything we can to take the blame and attention off of ourselves. If you’re anything like me, this happens far more than you’d like to admit.

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if when you were found guilty, caught in a corner, completely in the wrong, that instead of talking and impressing your way out, you could just confessapologize? ask for forgiveness? All while knowing that you are already loved and forgiven.

This weekend, my husband went on a surfing trip with some of his friends to the Outer Banks. I can already see the smirks on some of the ladies’ faces reading this. You know what’s coming next. I was awful to him about it. I didn’t want him to go without me, leaving me home alone for the second weekend in a row with all of our kids. After the long, hot, tiring summer with all three of our young children, all I wanted was a weekend away with him. No fighting and whining kids. No cutting chicken into little bite sized pieces before every meal. Some personal space to breathe and be alone with my love. I was so jealous of his friends, that they got to spend the time away with him that I wanted so badly. And I let him know it through my passive aggression: on facebook, in texts, and in person before he left.

Naturally, when he came back home he was hurt. I had acted like a child and forced him to not have a good time on his trip from worrying about me. And there it was. I was backed into a corner with nowhere to run or hide. I had hurt him in front of his friends and had done wrong. My very first reaction was to throw blame back into his face. But we both knew that he had done nothing wrong. I was jealous and hurt that I couldn’t go along, so I punished him. Seeing the hurt on his face caused me to pause and stop running the solutions to my problem of having hurt him. And I told him how sorry I was for hurting him, for being so selfish. A death to myself. My body almost wanted to physically run away from admitting that I had done wrong and asking him to forgive me. And do you know what he did? He forgave me. He told me that I am always his. There is not much else in this world that draws me to love my husband more than when he forgives me or asks me for forgiveness. In those tender moments of honesty and grace, where wrongs are forgiven without a record being kept, I am captivated to him.

Oh, to be loved and forgiven.

Longing For Home

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If you drive the long stretch of route 58 west from the low marshes of Virginia, the ground begins to plump and swell towards the the old and bushy Appalachian mountains and the water slowly shifts and drains down into the Mississippi River basin as a spout into the gulf. When the briars become more tangled and lichen spatters across bark and rocks as wrinkled age spots, you have come to the imagined Virginia/Tennessee line. There are no valleys here, only hollows and slanted front porches that overlook gardens grown in brown clay and cows that meander through crooked wooded trails.

We arrived there in our mini-van and always stick out as the city folk among Jason’s extended family. Every year we visit and ever year we become more and more removed from life that is there’s. It’s a natural generational shift when a family moves away from their land and marries outsiders. We come back as observers. Visitors. We wander around the fields. Sit on the porches. Hug and chat and are amazed out how much the children have grown and the elders have weakened. But we aren’t there when the fields need to be plowed and medicine needs to be administered. We aren’t there during the daily moments of meals and bills, seeds and watering. So we soak in as much of each other as we can in sweltering air and cool breezes and we try to make up for lost time by talking for long hours, throw water balloons, build fires, make new memories, help to clean dishes and trim bushes. The compressed time does fill the empty spaces of a separated family, at least for a moment.

We make this journey every year to visit Jason’s aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, but this trip, for me, was long and difficult. The hotel room was dark and lonely. And you can only eat so many continental breakfasts before you begin to stare at your bagel wondering when the Lord is going to return. My spirit longed to be home. The people who I’m with daily, who see my children slowly creep up through their jeans, they were all home hurting. Being away from home and from my people isolated me to the point of extreme grief. All I wanted to do was talk about it, to pray and grieve with human bodies and hearts. Suppressing my trouble and grief over the deaths of the innocent made me feel less human. Our screens have created a sort of dual reality; what we read and type into digital space is not what we communicate in our physical space. But it’s always right under the surface. We’re all thinking about what the person next to us said or shared on Facebook but we don’t mention it to them while we’re sitting in the grass watching our children fly paper airplanes. We’re too busy filling our empty spaces with each other to talk about grief and pain and murder. That eats at my mind. It makes my spirit weary. And I wanted to go home.

What was it about Alton Sterling’s, Philando Castile’s, and the five police officer’s deaths last week that shattered our collective hearts? What is different this time? Have you noticed the air shift? The ground tilt? When we drove back home into our driveway yesterday evening we rushed inside and ate a quick dinner, changed our clothes, combed our hair, piled back into our van, and drove to church for a special service of lament, confession, and worship. When I sat in the pew, immediately the broken chasm between the digital, the physical and the spiritual broke wide open and I wept with my people. We prayed, we sang, and we cried out to the Lord in our grief and our fear. We individually stood up and confessed our racism, our indifference, our pride, our arrogance, and our retreat from humility and grace. Our pastor, through his own tears and anguish, offered the filled sanctuary words of our Lord’s grace. And our hearts lifted in joy and hope through our grief and sorrow. It’s what my heart needed. I needed to be home with my people, my church, my community, and I needed to grieve with them. I needed to go to the Lord with them. I needed my heart to be healed with them.

While I love my husband’s extended family, their homes, and their land, I’m just so glad to be home. I belong here. The people know me. I know them. We grieve, look towards hope, and march together towards justice. All to the glory of our Lord.

Women and Their Church To the Glory of Our Lord

I rushed into church late on Sunday morning, off the heels of leaving my husband at home with our sons to treat their heads for lice. I almost stayed home but my heart was being pulled by a string towards the people who I desperately needed to be with. Working my way across the sanctuary through a crowd of worshiping parishioners, I found my two friends who were standing and singing, swaying with their children at their feet and on their hips, greeting my frantic spirit with smiles and knowing hugs. We sat there with our brood that chirped and giggled during prayers and silence, and we corrected and patted their heads, passing crayons and coloring books and a love that bound us thick together as sisters. Our husbands were off fulfilling other duties to the church, to our families, or to themselves, but their absence was almost our power. Our minds and our bodies stretched out and up to the Lord and his glory filled our lips with praise and love for one another. And we sat there. We recited the liturgy.  Confessed our sins. Passed the plates. Prayed for our weak and dying world. And kept our children relatively quiet. When it was time for the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, I stood and took up the cup and the bread to feed our congregation with the love of Jesus. When my friends came up to my plates, them and their children, I looked them in the eyes and told them of his great mercy and love. A mercy and love that we have seen worked through our devastating miscarriages and disease diagnoses, struggles through our mental health, our crumbling marriages, our failures and rejections, our disobedient children, our strained family relationships, and arguments and disputes between us that only he can restore and reconcile. And we stood there with the body and blood of Christ between us. Women loved by God. Women who feed each other with the love of his grace. Women who stay when life is hard. When we are joyful and helpful and sacrificial and loving and laughing.  When life is unfair. Who hurt each other and yet still love and forgive. I looked at them with tears in all of our eyes and we prayed and we drank and we ate.  This is to the glory of the Lord.

An Elder’s Wife

I have a story to tell you about my husband and my church.  Two pieces of my life that I hold very dear to my heart but who often have edges and angles that cross and cut me, as loved ones often do. Sometime last year while we were weeding in our garden or cooking in our kitchen, the Spirit took it upon himself, or herself, or itself, or any other pronoun that language uses to confine God, to nominate Jason as an elder in our church. I don’t think that the Spirit actually filled out the necessary paperwork, but somehow Jason’s name ended up in a divine sorting hat that called him forward as an elder; a hat that magically seems to only call men to these divine offices. We both hemmed and hawed for awhile trying to decide what he should do, but we both concluded that it would be a good opportunity for us to learn some things about our faith. He’d just have to bring home what he was learning and let me pour over it myself since I wasn’t invited to attend the class. I was focused on getting into a doctorate program, anyways. That’s what we were moving towards: my career and education. Spaces that include women in leadership. Well, at least some of the time anyways. After all of my hard work was rejected and I was sent away from the ivory tower, not unlike the Israelite exodus just without the raining bread, Jason stared at me like a deer in the headlights. I guess this meant that he would be taking the test to become an elder in our church after all. Because when you pray for clarity, the Spirit doesn’t play.

With note cards and mnemonic devises, Jason has been studying covenants and catechisms, dates and doctrines, theology and gospel, so that at the end of this week he can take a few tests, be interrogated about his heresy and submit to the authority and beliefs of our denomination in service to the church, gloria patri, forever and ever, amen.

You know, it’s funny. I have this weird reputation in my church for being a liberal feminist, almost like the leader of an underground hideout for women who want to express these inner conflicts inside of them. I have no idea where they got this idea.  It’s not uncommon for a woman to come up to me in church and say, “so I hear that you’re… [their eyes carefully search around] a liberal. A… feminist. That you’d be someone that I can come and talk to.” My eyes furrow in confusion and I look around to make sure that they’re talking to me and not some other liberal christian feminist and I respond with something like, sure?  But now that my husband could be an elder, that would make me an elder’s wife and with it will come all of the signifiers and preconceived notions of what that means. Things that I don’t want and will actively reject. But all of a sudden this reputation that has clung to me makes me feel exposed and very much in a way like Anne Hutchinson, and I don’t want that, either. I reject the idea that the church and the gospel should not cross me, because it very much should. It should and does cross all of us. My beliefs about gender, sexuality, poverty, politics, creativity, culture, etc, are always crossed by the gospel. Always. I’m always scratching my head and questioning myself and the gospel. How can I love Jesus so much, and yet find myself constantly at odds with him and his law? Constantly questioning and attempting to reconcile myself and my beliefs to him and to his church? I have no answers. Not really. I just know that the gospel is supposed to cross us. And if it doesn’t, then we’re not doing it right. And that’s why I get so confused when women come to me at church as if I have some sort of underground railroad towards feminism. The gospel crosses me. The same way it should and does cross those who protect patriarchy and conservatism.

My last blog post, the one where I dropped the F-Bomb right at the very end, made me very self conscious. I thought about how I could be the wife of an elder in my church and how that makes me and my husband and our family look. I know it made several of you uncomfortable, both in the church and in the academy. I very much wanted to go back and change it or delete it. But I didn’t. I’m in a very strange place where I’m trying to figure out what it is I’m supposed to be doing and how I’m supposed to be acting since I didn’t get accepted into a doctoral program. It’s like I’ve lost this big part of myself and I don’t know how to act or what to even say. I’m trying to figure out what it means to be an elder’s wife. What it means to not be in academia. What I should do if I’m considering not teaching anymore. And on and on. But, I can’t hide myself and I can’t attach my identity to those around me, be it my husband, my church, or academia. That’s crushing. I guess I just have to keep looking at the Spirit and asking, “why not me?” Why can’t I go to doctoral school? Why can’t I be an elder? Why must I be here and not over there? And hope that the Spirit answers.

 

The Art of Dying

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I follow a woman on Instagram who is dying of cancer. She rarely mentions it. She rarely pictures it. But I notice it. Glaringly so. Actually, she stopped posting pictures all together a few weeks ago. And that’s when I knew it was the beginning of her end.

Beautifully curated and designed images. Fields of wildflowers. Backyard hens. Sparkling rays of sun on golden braided hair. Little floured hands in cookie dough. A swollen belly filled with a baby. Crowns of pink roses. Handmade bonnets, dresses and leather shoes. Candid sleeping. Candid selfies. Kissing spouses. Beautiful children. Happiness.
200,000 followers. 

In January, Mary* posted a picture of a GoFundMe page that her sister started for her after a year of secretly being diagnosed and struggling with ovarian cancer. All of her followers were stunned. But I really wasn’t. I have a knack for sniffing these things out. Something of a curse, really. Subtle changes catch my intuition. A few less selfies. Boney hands. Thinning braids. Yellowing skin. I’ve seen it all before in people I have loved and lost to cancer. Except their lives were far less documented and beautiful. She didn’t tell us that she is on hospice, just that she has cancer. Because how do you beautifully capture catheter bags and morphine drips? Home hospital beds and bed pans? Where are the sun rays and roses to make me want what she has? Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? Envy.

We often forget that it is the earth to where we all return. Perhaps that’s why writing and creating art has driven human existence for millennia. We want to be remembered. We want to be preserved. We want to be kept. Everything that we believe is valuable and important should last on this earth after we are gone. Perhaps that’s why Instagram is such a place of beauty for me. It’s people staking their permanence in the world before they are returned to dust. Even if it is often fake. Whatever that means. What art isn’t fake? Isn’t all art a reflection of our reality? Glimmers of our existence? No matter how authentic or real we attempt to make it look or appear? Because, I’ll tell you that even if Mary did post her experience of dying, it would never be enough. It would never be her dying self. Her failing body. Her motherless children. Her widower husband. Dying is a lonely business and art can rarely capture it. It can attempt. It can come close. But no one who has ever died has written of it on paper or captured it in an image. That last escaped breath is all the world knows of it. Life is gone and death has entered.

And then what?

I’m currently reading a book of poetry by Karenne Wood  called Markings on Earth. It has taken my breath away and it reminds me so much of myself. Her poem “Blue Mountains” reminds me of a poem that I recently wrote called “Stories From Ott Street.” They both are set in the same mountain range of Virginia and they both talk about death and a lingering once we’re gone. She says,

Bury us in the blue mountains, our bodies
the earth they have always been.
We will grow
into trees and animals, turn soil back to elk’s grass
and ask to return as an elemental brightness
that gleams with the most furious love.

Death has always surrounded us as an art. The trees and the grass and the air are created from generations of bone and blood. It has preserved us, grows us, and feeds us with a furious love. Both friends and enemies alike. It is a cycle. A preservation. An art.


*I have a sensitivity to talking about people on the internet. Specifically people who I don’t know and who don’t know me. I’ve changed the name of the woman I follow on Instagram for privacy’s sake. The last thing she needs is some rando blogger talking about her and her family’s grief and loss. We all should be given the dignity to tell our own stories when and how we think they should be told. And so, I leave them with theirs to tell.

 

A Failed Dream

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There’s a story that I haven’t told you. The story of being rejected from every doctoral program that I applied to.

Last year I had a baby. A baby that my husband and I planned for and dearly wanted. Freshly graduated from my graduate program, I was ready to have her. With her as an infant, life was slow and all of my unmanageable expectations about motherhood had been seared off with my first two children. I nursed and rocked Ruby to sleep. I was patient with her, with our two older boys. I looked to the future really proud of what I had just accomplished in school and I waited. Looking back on that time it feels so luxurious. Sweet babies. Time spent well. Patience. Freedom.

When it was time, and what I mean by that is when we needed the money and I needed to boost my CV, I started back to teaching writing and literature in the university as an adjunct. Or, as our department so eminently  bestows upon us, as an affiliate faculty member. With all of the time it demanded away from my baby, she slowly started to wean. Much sooner than I had ever wanted. But I knew that it was all for a dream that I had stashed away in my heart. I began to slowly build my application packages for a handful of doctoral programs. Programs at Universities far too prestigious and important for me and any of my work.  That is what probably makes me the most embarrassed; feeling so worthy of those places. Jason and I were ready. We put our garden back to grass. Started looking at houses in all of the different cities that we might go. I dreamed of the classes and the writing and the books that I’d be reading. Chiefly, I felt important. Bigger than my body could hold. And maybe that’s what was wrong. My grandma always used to tell me that I was too big for my breeches. She saw it in me then; a desire to be bigger than I am. To burst out of my skin. To give the world something that they haven’t yet seen.

Well, nothing is more humbling than having rejection letters stream into your in-box week after week. I expected a few. I didn’t, however, expect for all of them to be rejections. In the back of my mind there is a handful people snickering at my loss. People happy and glad and full of I-told-you-so’s. And honestly, it makes me think of my mom and my dad who I haven’t talked to in years and how if they knew, they’d probably laugh and be glad, too. It serves me right; me and my big ol’ breeches.

When I was 5 or 6, I would stand on top of my plastic Mickey Mouse table in the basement of my grandparent’s house and sit them both around me as my admiring spectators. Ed McMahon called out my name, introduced me to the judges, and I belted “Over the Rainbow” into my plastic microphone.  3 and 3/4 stars! he declared. My grandparent’s clapped and cheered and I took my bow. My parents, however, rarely sat and listened. And if they did, I sensed their annoyance. Little children have a way of sensing those things. Or maybe it was my step dad mock singing at home in our kitchen and telling me that all I thought about was myself and that it was my grandparent’s fault. Maybe that’s what tipped me off.

But isn’t it annoying when grown adults have childhood issues? Blaming their lives and failures on a past filled with flawed, imperfect people?  I’ve never blamed my parents for anything wrong with me or my life. Not that there’s much to complain about. But in moments like these, when I’m feeling rejected and embarrassed, I hear a deep ugly laugh and a terrible rendition of “Over the Rainbow” being sung at me. As if to say, how dare you think you’re important?  And often I believe it.

A few days before Easter this year we attended a Maundy Thursday service at a house filled with people from our church. Our pastor was there and he’s been keeping up with this academic journey of mine and checking in on me, praying for me and my family, asking how it’s going. When I told him, again, about another rejection, he got real close to me, as he tends to do, looked at me and said, “Ashley, the Lord is just so proud of you. He sees you and your work and is just so, so proud.” And my goodness, did my heart ever swell and tears fall down my face. Words of grace that I needed to hear. Not that everything happens for a reason. Or that God has other plans. Or that those places are missing out. Or that they made a mistake or that I should try again. But that who I am and all that I’ve done makes the Lord proud. No mocking. No laughing. No rejection. No oversized breeches. Only love and an embrace.

And just like that, my desire to impress and meet other’s expectations and my embarrassment for failing fell away. At least for now.

Right now I’m deciding to not reapply next year. There are lots of reasons why I’ve made this decision, and maybe I’m making it too soon and irrationally off the heels of rejection. That’s probably right. I’m rethinking what my priorities are for me and my family and what I will do. But I’m trying to not make that important right now. I’ll be writing. Both here and personally. Taking life slow. Caring for my kids. Doing average, menial, not very valued stuff. And you all will just have to be okay with that.