About this time two years ago, Tim and I took our eldest child, Keara, to college for the first time. It was a tough day for all of us, and it brought back a lot of memories of another “leaving day” that I had experienced twenty-five years earlier. You can read about it here.  Even when we heal, there are parts of a broken heart that will always be more tender. But two weeks ago, on a midweek morning, with no fanfare, Keara packed up a car and headed back to her third year at CSULB. What a difference 700 (or so) days make! With the day already at 90+ degrees, even a long hug was out of the question, so I stood in the street and waved goodbye as she drove away with David Bowie blasting out the car window

But that doesn’t mean this Fall will be easy. In a few days, child #2 is moving out and heading to college about 100 miles away. This time, it feels just the same and totally different. The same part is that it’s a portion of my heart walking out the door and setting up residence in another jurisdiction. You learn to function that way, but you walk with a limp for a while. The different part is that it’s Finn. If you don’t know what I mean, check out my post from June. The house will be quieter, less fun-loving and jokey, but just less loving too. When Finn’s been out of the house at dinner time this past year, Tim, Molly and I have kind of looked at each other sideways across the table, each of us thinking, “Just the three of us, huh?”

IMG_4449
Graduation Day: Finn and Dr. Renfree, principal of Serra High School

Molly probably feels the most anxious about the 40% population drop, a little ripped off by her change of circumstance.  I was the “big sister” in my family and never experienced the sense of abandonment that the younger ones must go through as siblings move out on their own, one after another. However, Molly is thrilled with Finn’s decision to move in with my parents and attend junior college for two years before transferring to San Luis Obispo.  For one thing, it’s 200 miles closer; for another, he can’t dictate (exactly) when she can and cannot visit him. She’s got her own key to Grandma’s house! She adores her big brother and some of the most tender moments in the hospital this last Spring were when he sat by her bedside. No matter how she felt, Finn always got a smile.

IMG_2682
February 2017

A mama knows that the fabric of her family will eventually be stretched by time and distance (and other things), so she spends the first decades of her kids’ lives stitching them together, so that when the bonds are tested, the Love of her family will stay strong. Undoubtedly, some of the threads will come loose and the edges will fray, but she prays the integrity of what she’s woven will hold.

With that in mind, I approached this summer with the goal of creating as many opportunities as I could for the five of us to be together, tightening the threads, and stockpiling enough hugs and laughter to last us for the months (or weeks) that might pass before we are together again. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn’t, but there were beach days, dinners out, movie nights, evening body surfing sessions, Scrabble games, Slurpee runs to 7-11, conversations across the table, sing-a-longs in the car, and Snapchat videos shared.

Every once in a while, I would find myself wondering – a little anxiously if I’m honest – “Has it been enough? Have I been enough? Have I done enough before I let them go? Will our fabric hold?” It takes a lifetime for those answers to unfold, but I was getting all teary-eyed thinking about how my time of biggest impact was coming to a close.

And then Keara left.

And then the date of Finn’s departure neared.

And then Charlottesville (and our President) happened.

And then my tears dried up.

I’ve got nothing to cry about.

(I’m not saying I won’t cry, or that there’s anything wrong with crying about our kids leaving, but it gave me some serious perspective.)

My son is going to be just fine, and there are so many things in our world that are not fine at all.

I’ve raised a white, middle-class, soon-to-be college-educated young man in a two-parent American, “Christian” home. He has been privileged in every way his whole life. Of course he’s worked hard and honed his skills, but every door has been opened for him, except the ones we couldn’t afford (but those were few and far between and he didn’t need them anyway). Every step of the way, from parents to teachers, coaches to employers, police to waiters, he has been given the benefit of the doubt, not just because of the color of his skin, but because of the smile on his face, the kindness and confidence he exudes, the vocabulary he’s developed (in part from having two parents with multiple college degrees between them).

All of it comes “naturally” to him and that’s a form of privilege.

So is that fact that he can wear clothes from Goodwill, and loiter in the local park with his friends all hours of the day and night without “concerned” neighbors calling the cops.  So is the fact that he can go to school for the next two years without taking out a loan. So is the fact that when he needs a job, we can call upon dozens of professional connections to help him get a foot in the door. So is the fact that he can “follow his heart” and pursue a career in photography. If it all goes belly up, he’s got some money in the bank and many, many places to land.

To be sure, he isn’t guaranteed a damn thing. He is going to have to bust his ass to make his dreams come true. He may fail many times, but this kid has multiple choices and multiple chances to succeed. Anything he accomplishes will be based, not just on his own talent, grit, hard work and luck, but also because the world welcomes him with open arms as a straight, white man and that’s privilege.

Last week, when everything in Charlottesville went down, Tim and I had Finn to ourselves on a 20+ hour road back from Montana. It was a gift to have so much time with him, right before he leaves the nest. We talked race, religion, politics, enneagram, technology, social media, national parks and the environment, our dreams, fears and failures. We offered our takes and heard his and I have to say, I am less worried about him than ever. I believe in him – his talent, skills, vision and work ethic, but most especially, his heart.

I haven’t posted anything about Charlottesville, because I didn’t want to add my voice to the fray. There were so many good, and important things being said by people who were there and people who have wrestled with these issues their whole lives, people like Brené Brown and Brian McLaren and  Ruby Sales, among countless others.

But I do want to highlight two voices I came across that were kind of hidden away, but are every bit as worthy of wide-scale attention.

The first is a bit of parenting advice from Brian Vincent from Farmville, Virginia, a born and bred Southerner, who contributed to a forum on BitterSoutherner.com.

Screen Shot 2017-08-19 at 4.42.57 PM

“As I looked at my girls this morning, I remembered that I have the most potent weapon against this kind of ugliness, right at my fingertips. We can Raise Warriors. We can raise children who speak out in defense of love, and denounce hate at every turn. We can combat a long history of calculated disparagement of ‘others’ by educating and reminding our children of this country’s history, while emphatically celebrating its diversity.

Step your game up. Engage in the uncomfortable waters of contentious conversation. Fight back with sharp intellect, and a heart filled with fierce morality. Teach your children that this war will not be won with physical combat, but with a spiritual warrior’s discipline and adherence to love. Be bold.”

@The Bitter Southerner

The second is from the Native American award-winning poet,  and author, Sherman Alexie. His brilliant poem, HYMN, was written just days ago. You can find the whole thing here, and I hope you’ll take the time to read it, but here is an excerpt to get you started.


It’s too easy to keep a domestic score.
This world demands more love than that. More.

So let me ask demanding questions: Will you be
Eyes for the blind? Will you become the feet

For the wounded? Will you protect the poor?
Will you welcome the lost to your shore?

Will you battle the blood-thieves
And rescue the powerless from their teeth?

Who will you be? Who will I become
As we gather in this terrible kingdom?

My friends, I’m not quite sure what I should do.
I’m as angry and afraid and disillusioned as you.

But I do know this: I will resist hate. I will resist.
I will stand and sing my love. I will use my fist

To drum and drum my love. I will write and read poems
That offer the warmth and shelter of any good home.

I will sing for people who might not sing for me.
I will sing for people who are not my family.

I will sing honor songs for the unfamiliar and new.
I will visit a different church and pray in a different pew.

I will silently sit and carefully listen to new stories
About other people’s tragedies and glories.

I will not assume my pain and joy are better.
I will not claim my people invented gravity or weather.

And, oh, I know I will still feel my rage and rage and rage
But I won’t act like I’m the only person onstage.

I am one more citizen marching against hatred.
Alone, we are defenseless. Collected, we are sacred.

We will march by the millions. We will tremble and grieve.
We will praise and weep and laugh. We will believe.

We will be courageous with our love. We will risk danger
As we sing and sing and sing to welcome strangers.

Finn gets it. He knows he’s got a head start and that to judge, dismiss, divide and denigrate others is a bullshit way to make it in the world. What do the gospels say? “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and from him who has been entrusted with much, even more will be demanded.” We have been given so freakin’ much, we’ve got to start giving back, somehow, in some way. Maybe Finn won’t in big ways for a while, but the fact that he gave me the “okay” to publish this is a start. He’s just a kid after all, but I’m the adult and I’ve got to step up my game.

Welcome to the world, Class of 2017.

I’ve known some of you since the day you were born and I’ve watched you grow up, go to school, play sports and skateboard in my front yard. I’ve surfed and studied and supped with you. I’ve watched you float and falter like all kids do. I have fallen in love with your hearts and witnessed your potential to change the world, so get to school; get to work; get to learning how to Love. We’re counting on you.

 

cuzmxpfw8aahsjj

I don’t often get political in this forum, but I’m going to take a risk and go there today. As Election Day nears, it seems to me that barring any extreme revelations everyone has settled on whom they are going to vote for and why. We’ve come to terms with our decision and I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise. I appreciate that during this painful election season, most of us have had to dig a little deeper than usual. Instead of simply pulling the lever along party lines, we’ve had to consider what is of ultimate importance to us, what we can live with and what we can’t live without. I think it’s healthy that my kids are being exposed to so many heated conversations at the dinner table, even though Tim and I consistently vote the same way.

But if you live in California there is an issue you may not have decided on yet: the two death penalty propositions.

Let me say right off the bat that I do not believe in the death penalty. From the research I’ve done, it fails to work as a serious deterrent to crime, as a cost-saving measure, or as an instrument of justice, but I do understand how significant it must feel when a perpetrator forfeits their life in payment for their crimes. I’m not saying it’s an easy decision to make, but if you are conflicted about which is the better option, I’m hoping you’ll read on.
For the last decades, the end-the-death-penalty movement has been growing across the nation and in each election cycle, Californians get closer and closer to making the decision to end the practice in our state. In fact, we got so close four years ago that Prop 66 was written simply to confuse the issue and keep the death penalty in place. The motto of Prop 66 is that they can “mend it not end it,” but I don’t believe that’s possible and certainly not according to their method, which is to hurry up executions by REDUCING the number of safeguards. The efficient answer isn’t the right one in this case, nor does it address any of the greatest moral and practical objections to this increasingly rare method of justice. You might be surprised to see the company we keep on a global scale by maintaining this practice. Check it out here. (Spoiler Alert: China, North Korea and Iran make the list.)

But apart from practical reasons for abolishing the death penalty, I feel even more strongly about the moral ones. As most of you know, I have some personal experience with being “pro-life.” I was raised a Catholic Christian and part of my upbringing was to honor a “consistent ethic of life,” in the words of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, from “womb to tomb.” That ethic played a huge role in my decision to change the course of my life at 19 and become a birth mother. Abortions were safe, affordable, and readily available and many friends urged me to make that decision. It could have all been over within 24 hours of that positive pregnancy test, but I believed in the value of protecting a child’s life over preserving the privileged conditions of my own. I believed it on an intellectual and moral level, but I also believed it on an instinctual one. We are made in the “image of God” and I was not about to extinguish that Divine spark. Instead, my desire has always been to nurture that spark within myself and at the very least, claim and hold space for it, especially when others don’t see it in themselves, or their enemies.

But being “pro-life” was never a political litmus test for me, because having that ethic goes so far beyond simply outlawing abortion. Conception and birth are the first steps of life, but they are not the only ones that matter. I love this statement by Sr. Joan Chittister clarifying the terms for her audience.

12047090_1004970076215108_6286412291888440921_n

It’s easy to cherish those first few breaths of innocent life, but we are by no means allowed to forget the rest. I love how Richard Rohr puts it. When people insist that “God loves innocent life,” he responds, “Oh dear, I hope not!” for who among us is innocent? Beyond the implications of what “pro-life” means when it comes to social services, education, and our moral obligations, for me, being “pro-life” is also reflected in how I respond to end of life issues such as suicide, aging, euthanasia and mental health issues.

And if you aren’t “pro-life,” but are pro-justice, then please consider the fact that innocent people die through our use of this instrument and that is not justice. More and more DNA exonerations take place every year. Additionally, prisoners on death row are overwhelmingly people of color, of poverty, and of limited mental capacity and that is not justice. Their percentages are not commensurate with the rate at which they commit heinous crimes, but are rather a direct reflection of the life-saving privilege that money, color and connections can buy. If you believe that #alllivesmatter, then voting Yes on Prop 62 and No on Prop 66 is one way to stand up and show your support for the lives that many would rather forget. Prop 66 does nothing to address these (and other) deeply unjust patterns.

Grappling with this subject is difficult, especially if you were raised to believe that all people were equal in the eyes of the law and that justice would always be served when it simply isn’t true.

I don’t have the space here for the data and detailed statistics arguing why the death penalty doesn’t work. Other people have done it passionately and effectively, so I’m sharing a list of books and films that have shaped my thoughts on the subject. And there are a lot of thoughts to be shaped!

  • Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy
  • Fr. Greg Boyle: Tattoos on the Heart
  • Sr. Helen Prejean: Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents
  • Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow
  • Thirteenth, now of Netflix

And finally, I want to address one more issue. One of the biggest arguments for keeping the death penalty in place, and one of the hardest to refute, is that  so many of the victim’s families want it to remain. I cannot even pretend to know the depth of their pain, but in the case of many families, the execution of justice through the death penalty did not bring them the relief they sought. After having gone through the process, more and more family members are speaking out against the death penalty. Here is a small collection of their testimonies, as well as the example of Tamika Brown that I wrote about in early 2015.

The bottom line? I’m voting

Yes on 62 and No on 66.

For more information, you can check out Death Penalty Information Center, or Yeson62.com 

Finally, if you are Catholic and want to hear an extensive interview with Jennifer Bonakdar, Yes on Prop 62 leader, as well as Beth Webb, a sister of a murder victim, who is opposed to capital punishment, you can tune in HERE to the Immaculate Heart Radio replay.

 

 

i-cant-keep-calm-my-babys-leaving-for-college

Many of my friends and readers have children leaving for their first year of college in the next week, or two.  My heart is with them. Just last fall, we sent Keara, our oldest daughter, off to school. It may have been only 120 miles away, but it was far enough to create a distance and level of vulnerability that was difficult for us to accept.

One of the ways we managed to honor our emotions, but empower her was to “bless” her on her way. It was a really moving experience for all of us, including her younger brother and sister, who felt her absence as keenly as we did. It’s a tradition we will continue this year as she packs her bags at the end of this week and again heads north.

If you are looking for a way to “let go” in Love, here’s the blessing we used, but I want to affirm that what is in your heart and mind, what is authentic to your family’s language and experience, will always work best. Too often, we are afraid to articulate the Love and the deep truths that reside in our hearts. We hold back out of fear that we will stumble, sound silly, or maudlin.

What if we cry ? Maybe we will!

Will our emotions make us look weak, or scare our kids? Maybe they will!

Who knows? Who cares?

They can handle it! Showing our vulnerability is actually a sign of great strength.  If you don’t believe me, check out the brilliant  research of Dr. Brené Brown. 


From “A Meditation on Leaving for College”

I love to ritualize moments in my family’s life,  and so we often do blessings and prayers as people hit certain milestones, but last night, I decided to try something different. I didn’t want “god-language” to get in the way of Keara’s hearing what we had to say.

I played a short guided Metta meditation by the Buddhist teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, with her husky voice and New York accent. It is a gentle introduction to the Buddhist practice of blessing, which involves the simple repetition of these four lines, beginning with yourself and radiating out to others.

May you feel safe. May you feel content. May you feel strong. May you live your life at ease.

That’s it and yet, it says almost everything. In safety, we do not act out of fear and all the negative consequences it brings. In contentedness, we are not greedy, grasping, envious, or backstabbing. When we are strong, we protect the weak, not just ourselves. To live at ease does not mean we live without suffering, but rather, that the end of the story is already assured.

We sat through the guided meditation as a family, each of us in silence, and in our own space and then we gathered around our daughter and sister, the one who is leaving our shared space, and we blessed her with the following words:

May you feel safe.

May you feel content.

May you feel strong.

May you live your life at ease.

And in those moments when you cannot feel safe, content, strong and at ease, then may you take a deep breath, center yourself and draw on the resources you’ve been given.

Remember your gifts, your talents, your deepest desires and what you are working towards.

Remember your history, what you have accomplished and the obstacles you’ve overcome.

Remember your family and friends whose Love will never waver and whose support you can always count on.

Remember that Love is your birthright, the place you came from and the place you will find your home.

For it is there that you will find the freedom to become most fully yourself, and committed to your future,

Where you will find the courage to embrace hard work, to overcome setbacks, to process your confusion and disappointments and learn from them.

May you always come home – to yourself and who you truly are – gloriously Keara Moses Kirkpatrick, a creative, passionate, determined soul, who is a gift we call our own.

Amen.

Amen, Keara. That is our wish and our blessing for you as you move into your own space in the world, physically, spiritually, and professionally. You know where to find us whenever you want to come home.


Good luck friends as you send your children on their way towards greater freedom and responsibility. The risks are greater, but so too is the reward.

 

Author’s Note: My editor, a.k.a. my sweet husband, commented that people might not get past the treatise on theology that kicks off this post. He thought I should ask you to PLEASE stick with it and watch the video at the end. It’s worth it. Thanks!

I woke early this morning, like 4 a.m. early, and decided to tackle one of my theology chapters for the Living School. I find it much easier to get through this type of work with a well-rested mind. What looks like gibberish at 10 p.m. somehow becomes intelligible after seven hours of sleep. This particular chapter was from a book called Christophany by Raimon Pannikar. Here is a sample:

Here we see clearly delineated a twofold dimension of Christianity that a dualistic vision of reality has difficulty keeping in harmony, despite the fact that nonduality is the quintessence of Christ’s mystery – totus Deus et totus homo (“The whole God and the whole man”) according to the classical expression. An inevitable consequence of this “panhistorical” vision of Christianity would be that the eucharist cannot be Christ’s real and true presence, but only an anamnesis (“memory”) of a past fact. In other words, without a mystical vision, the Eucharistic reality disappears.

After reading it the first time, there was nothing “clearly delineated,” and no “inevitable consequence” was obvious to me. However, after several passes a modicum of understanding emerged. If his meaning is crystal clear to you, leave a comment below and we will discuss.

However, if that paragraph of theology leaves you cold, read on.

I will confess, there is some part of me that loves academic work. I love the puzzle, the working things out, the “Aha” moment when I finally grasp the author’s point. It’s even better when I have not just comprehension, but also an opinion on their argument. That is a true victory!

But as I find myself being intellectually and egoically seduced by the power of knowledge, I also know, in the pit of my stomach, that it’s “nothing but straw,” as Thomas Aquinas infamously said in the final days of his life. Ultimately, on a cold day, in the concrete reality of our lives, most of what has been written about God would be most useful as fuel for a fire to keep us warm. Theology simply falls short of experiential knowledge. Simply put, our study of the Divine has far less of an impact on us than our experience of it.

The only theology we truly need to know is that God is Love with a capital L. Jesus gave us only two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and Love your neighbor as yourself. That’s it. Like Hillel, he thought the rest would take care of itself. St. Augustine said simply, “Love God and do as you please.” But even this simple theology is worthless if we are not Loved in real life, in real ways, by real people, intentionally, compassionately, fiercely and unconditionally. Without the lived experience of deeply committed Love, by parent, spouse, friend or community, even this theology can be twisted and misunderstood.

I know academic studies of theology, philosophy and the like are crucially important disciplines. They elevate and animate conversations at the highest levels and shape our educational system and our vision of the world. They record the evolution of our collective consciousness. Without Plato, Socrates, Augustine, Bonaventure, Aquinas, without Descartes and Voltaire, Locke and Hobbes, and countless others, we would not be where we are today. But these subjects are not for everyone and I am grateful for the “1%ers” who study them responsibly and have an opportunity to influence our world.

I know what they’ve done is good, but I read a story about Tamika Brown today, who is the embodiment of a lived theology of Love and

I am convinced that if all the theology in the world from every culture and religion, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and every other, ceased to exist tomorrow and instead we all Loved like this, the world would be a better place.

Two years ago, Tamika’s son, Richie Knight, was stabbed to death when he was 19 years old. His killer was Ian Lorne Ellis, a 17-year-old young man from the neighborhood, who Richie had been in confrontations with in the months before the murder. Ellis pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter and will serve twenty-one years in prison. This is what Tamika had to say to him in the courtroom on the day of his sentencing.

“Only God knows why I’m not angry, or why I don’t hate you. Would it shock you to hear that I love you? I thought to myself one day a while back, ‘Don’t lock him up. Sentence him to my home. Let him be my son that he took away from me.’”

Can you imagine if we all sought justice this way? If loss opened us up and allowed us to give birth to something new and miraculous, instead of hardening our hearts, seeking retribution?

Tamika sang to her son’s killer about the source of her Love, starting with the song, “He Cares,” but changing a few words on the spot:

“So you think that you can’t make it through,/ Just remember that my God cares for you…/Don’t give up, don’t give in/ Today make Jesus Christ your number one friend.”

In suffering, Tamika knew Love, but instead of sharing it only with her friends and family, she extended it to the other, her enemy. No one can say this is soft, or easy, or wishy-washy theology. This is Love from its the deepest source, in any culture and by any name. She changed the equation. We are accused and we get defensive; we are Loved and we can be transformed.

Theology is all well and good, but it should never trump the embodied reality of Love. Think of France and Nigeria. Think of Israel and Palestine, ISIS and Iraq. Think of Leelah Alcorn. All these tragedies were based on mistaken theologies, ones that said there was a something greater than Love. We have to do better.

I may study theology, but I choose Love.

If you want to read the local news story, click here.

They check in, but they don't check out!
They check in, but they don’t check out!

My little brain is constantly amazed at how certain themes invade our consciousness at different points in our lives. It’s like we open a Roach Motel in our minds and a breed of previously unrecognized (and perhaps even unwanted) ideas from the Universe just march right in, one after another. As promised, “They check in, but they never check out!” This convergence of divine wisdom changes us; the new ideas find a home and we are never the same again.

A couple of years ago, I began to see #Signs of Love, every day, all the time. Apparently, Love was what I needed to know. By encountering hearts everywhere, I understood that divine Love animates the world. Recognizing Love in everything from stones to sunlight, I began to love myself, my family, friends, and even strangers more. I had more Love. I was more loving.

Opening my mind to the #Signs of Love changed my life.

Signsoflove

However, as time went on, I saw fewer and fewer #Signs of Love. At first I worried about the loss. “Where are my #signs? Where is the Love?” I wondered, but after a while, I got the message: Let go of what you think you need. When we are learning to walk, our parents do 90% of the work. As we get stronger and more independent, we need less “hands-on” assistance. In fact, too much help hinders us, making us dependent on something we don’t really need anymore, retarding our growth.

So I came to accept that although I would really like them, I don’t need daily reminders of the power of Love from outside of me. Rather, with every heartbeat, I am reminded that Love comes from inside of me. I also receive countless #Signs of Love from all over the world, from friends, family and even strangers. They see Love and share it with me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Truly, a divine economy. We share what we have in abundance, so please, keep them coming.

In the last year, new themes have arisen, but they aren’t nearly as photogenic, which makes them harder to share. I’ve mostly kept them to myself, but one in particular has haunted me. No matter where I go – in my life, my reading, my friendships, or my work – I’ve been brought to the same threshold over and over again. In a hundred different ways, in countless locations, in various tones, the question is asked: “What are you going to do with your life?”

It’s disconcerting, because I want to retort, “I am doing something with my life.” I’m raising a family; I’m teaching; I’m writing; I’m volunteering; I’m making a difference in my own little way. But it isn’t a silly, or insulting question, either, because frequently, I’m the one asking it.  My life may be half over, but that means I still have a whole half to live. That’s great, but here’s the rub.

When I was ten years old, I knew who and what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a wife and a mom. I wanted to read and write. I thought if I could do those things, I would be happy and I was right. I do those things and I am happy. But apparently, it isn’t enough, because the Roach Motel in my head says I can’t stay here.

The problem is that I have no idea where I am supposed to go. Thirty years ago, the goals were clear. Today, not so much.

For the last several years, I have modeled my search for work based on the quote by Frederick Buechner: “Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” I loved that idea and it has brought me this far, but recently theologian Howard Thurman disrupted my chain of thought. He wrote:

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

That statement floored me. When was the last time you thought about it? “What makes me come alive?” What did you say then? What would you say now?

We should think about it, because according to Brene Brown, it really matters. Meaningful work is a cornerstone of a meaningful life. We can’t be indifferent about it. Squandering our gifts, opting out of what brings us joy and purpose, deadens our souls and the souls of those around us. If we, as parents, bury ourselves alive, we are teaching our kids to do the same. I don’t want to do that. Keara, Finn and Molly are just getting started.

In my journal, I posed the question, What makes me come alive?” and this is what I wrote:

Loving God, my husband, my kids, my family, my friends; praying; reading and studying about humanity, our struggle and spirit, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Writing and talking about the things that fill my heart and mind. Sharing what I know, what I have, and who I am. Taking time to be well: spiritually, physically, emotionally, intellectually and helping others to be well too. Encouraging, listening, journeying with people who are ahead of and aside and behind me on the way.

Hmm.

Though I looked, I couldn’t really find a lucrative job description in there. If something occurs to you, let me know (really!), because so far, what I’ve come up with is spiritual director, or modern day monk and I don’t think either of those career paths is going to pay the kids’ car insurance, or college tuition.

That is the tension Tim and I haven’t worked out yet. How can I be truly alive, the center of a home that hums with energy and beats with love and contribute more significantly to the family’s financial stability? We’ve been stuck in a reductionist, either/or mentality, believing I have to choose one, or the other: get a job, or keep being alive. We are typically pretty smart people, which makes our lack of creativity on this subject so frustrating, but we are also stubborn, which opens up the possibility that an answer lies before us that we simply refuse to see. The Roach Motel keeps telling me there is a third way we simply haven’t discovered yet.

To that end, we are taking a risk. In the fall, I will be starting a two-year program at The Rohr Institute. It is called the “Living School for Action and Contemplation,” describing itself as an “underground seminary” which empowers students “to live out their sacred soul task in their homes, workplaces, and all relationships, within a more spacious stance that is at once critical, collaborative, and joyful.” The school is based in New Mexico, but most learning is done online, with two weeks a year on campus. I will still be able to teach, to parent, to be present to my life here, while “coming alive” in a more intentional way.

I haven’t shared our decision with many people, mostly because it feels a little foolish.  I won’t finish with an additional degree, or improved job prospects. I’m afraid people will think Tim is signing off on it for my sake, that our complex and heartfelt decision will be reduced to “Happy wife, happy life.” I doubt myself and wonder if I am just putting off the inevitable job hunt, buying myself two more years of “not-choosing,” two more years of putting my own desires ahead of those of my children.

They have everything they need and most of what they want, but there are many things left on the table. Some of them are silly like iphones; some are practical like laptops and some of them are so heartbreakingly beautiful, or simple, I want to cry. From attending art school without going into major debt to popping for a full-price movie ticket on a Friday night, I think, “If I could just die to myself, maybe I could make more of their dreams come true,” but then I take a deep breath and remember. My emotions might be real, but the fear is not. We live with an abundance of food, clothing, sunshine, education, opportunity, family and love. Scarcity is not our truth. When the Roach Motel says, “Listen” and I do, I come alive, thinking of all I will learn and experience in the years to come, the ways I will be challenged and changed and I pray that I bring it all back here to better serve the people I love the most (which includes all of you).

Once again, all these questions and doubts lead me back to the threshold and poet Mary Oliver’s wonderfully provocative question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” to which I answer, “I am doing it.”

I am loving and learning, praying and teaching, reading and writing, kissing and hugging and holding. I am breathing in and breathing out. I am moving forward, and falling back. I am reaching high and falling low. I am dreaming big and coming up short, day after day. Meanwhile, I am alive.

And I have to ask, “What makes you come alive?”

DIY-Christmas-Gift-Wrapping-Ideas-Button-Gift-Wrap-Creative-Gift-Wrapping-IdeasWith Christmas rapidly approaching, this will probably be my last post before the holiday. I write and wonder how you all are doing. Is your tree up, with lights and ornaments? Are all your presents purchased? Are any wrapped? Have you baked those cookies you plan to deliver to friends and neighbors?

My own answer to those questions would be no, no, not yet and most certainly no, which is pretty typical for the Kirkpatrick family. Between owning a retail business and working in education (me and the kids), the season doesn’t really feel festive until the shop is closed, school’s out and grades are in. We try to get in the spirit early, but meh – the 20th is when we start gearing up for fun.

Tim and the kids are always great about asking me what I want for Christmas and I always have ideas: boots, clothes, perfume, massages, a vacuum. This year though the Universe sent me a little holiday gift and I didn’t ask for it and it wasn’t what I wanted. It came wrapped up in a book with a sky-blue cover and a little red heart on it by Brene Brown called The Gifts of Imperfection

Sweet title, sweet book, I thought. I was wrong. It is heavy-duty stuff about shame and worthiness, fear, faith and authenticity. I was getting through it though, until I got to page 55 and a chapter called, “Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism.”  I almost skipped that one, because I am not a perfectionist. I have plenty of compassion for myself. I eat dessert every night. I draw myself hot bubble baths of a regular basis. When I’m just not feeling up to the challenge, I have no problem leaving the house looking like a wreck. However, I read on to see if there were any bits of self-love I was leaving on the table.

I wish I hadn’t. I started to read the chapter and within a page or two, my face started to flush, my heart beat faster. I pressed on, hoping it would go away, but it didn’t. Instead, I added nausea to my list of symptoms, as highlighter and pencil lead flew across the page, marking up sentence after sentence. As she described one perfectionist tendency after another, I became more and more mortified. The worst part was that I was totally unprepared! Like any good perfectionist, I hate to be caught off-guard, unaware, or uninformed about anything, especially my own personal business!

There were two things she clarified that struck me especially.

Perfectionism is not the same as striving to be your best. It is not self-improvement.

“Um, yes it is,” I thought, until she explained: Rather, perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Self-improvement is about moving in the right direction and I work hard at that, but apparently, people with my problem think that if we do everything right, improve enough, we will never feel those things. Those experiences (blame, judgment, shame) are for other people, so instead of taking the risk of doing big things imperfectly, we tend to do less than we are capable of.

Brown calls this life paralysis;

it’s all the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes and disappointing others. It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self worth is on the line.

I read these ideas and thought of all the book ideas I have stashed in my files, the thousands of pages of written, and unedited work on my computer, the hundreds of speaking leads sitting in a database on my desk, and the teaching job that pays me less than I could make at Starbucks. I live out a perfectionist’s paradox: I might be capable of more, but I’m too afraid to find out I’m not. Instead, I stay where I am, tucked away in my tiny little corner of the world, blogging from my cheetah-print armchair, looking out of my bedroom window at the blue sky and waiting for my family to come home.

Brown names the gifts of imperfection as courage, compassion and connection. I want to experience more of those, but first, I need to accept the gift of imperfection, the simple ability to forgive myself and move on when I make mistakes, instead of feeling like a failure. I need to not just dream big, but actually work on making those dreams come true, despite my fear of ridicule. 

My friend Leslie recently asked me to name a word for 2014. Fearlessness, I said, without hesitation, but the only way I can work on that is to first unwrap the gift of imperfection. Imperfections are not inadequacies, Brown writes, and to believe that would set me free. 

8545f1b4dbf8a4fe831b838ccf148198

On the brink of a new day.
On the brink of a new day.

This blog is a departure from my usual storytelling and I hope you’ll bear with me. One of the websites I check in with frequently is Sojourners online magazine. They have a published a series of articles on the rise of “The Nones,” those Americans who don’t identify with any religion, or who would say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” It has caught my interest and although I try not to get sucked down Internet rabbit holes, I have to admit this one’s got my number. I think it’s because I identify with both groups in some real ways.

Like many people I know, I stand in the gap.

As a Catholic Christian, I’ve watched countless friends and neighbors walk out of the church. Some linger at the door on their way out with a wistful look, wishing things could be different. Others hit the ground running and never look back. I understand both exit strategies and have been tempted to join them, but I haven’t, not yet. I am spiritual, but also still religious, albeit reluctantly so at times.

As much as I appreciate the conversations that are going on, we “religious” aren’t going to change anyone’s minds by talking about it, by beating our breasts, or wringing our hands. The “nones” aren’t going to walk back into church, because someone tells them they should, or because it would be good for them.  Shoulds are rarely effective with adults and if churches were actually good for them, in some tangible way, the “nones” would still be there in the first place.

I think the only way for churches to reverse the exodus of the “nones” is by becoming different churches.

DaringGreatly_final525In the New York Times best-selling book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown identifies a phenomenon she calls “the disengagement divide,” or values gap. It is the space between our “aspirational values,” those we claim to live by and our “practiced values,” the way we actually live. It’s the gap between what we practice and what we preach. The gap is inevitable, on both a personal and ecclesial level. But while the first one is manageable, the second is unwieldy to say the least.

On a personal level, we can take responsibility for the gap. We know that perfection isn’t possible, that we fall short each and every day. But if we are healthy and self-aware, we seek forgiveness and make amends. We get up and try again. Though it is a Sisyphean task, a majority of us strive to make the breach as small as possible.

Historically, institutional churches have not made that same effort.

I think it is the “disengagement divide” that the “nones” are fleeing more than anything. A few “nones” might have left the church because of bad music, or a lack of parking spots. A few more might have left because it wasn’t convenient, either to their psyche or their schedule. But I imagine that most “nones,” especially those who identify as spiritual, but not religious are leaving because “the disengagement divide” has become a chasm.

We call ourselves Christians. Right there in our name, we claim whom we follow, Jesus the Christ. That gives us a certain set of “aspirational values” to live up to. It doesn’t mean we need to be perfect, but it does mean we mean have a lot to strive for. Above all, we have to love God and we have to love our neighbor as we have been loved by Christ himself.

Institutionally, we have not done that very well and we have not apologized very often, or taken the necessary steps to correct it either.

Instead, churches have created another sub-group: the “RBNS”s, who are “religious, but not spiritual.” Despite its best efforts, or perhaps because of them, religion has a way of becoming legalistic, of creating in and out groups, and when you are on the inside, it’s awfully tempting to let go of the struggle that true spirituality requires. Belonging to a religion can make it too easy to follow a list of rules and regulations and claim the perks that come with membership.

Spirituality on the other hand is a relationship, an encounter with the Divine that calls us to transcend this material world and the hold it has on us.  It asks us to go deeper. It is through spirituality that we struggle with despair and hope, love and fear, doubt and certainty. Journeying with the Holy Spirit in this way allows us to transform ourselves, our relationships and hopefully the world around us, in a way that mere religion can’t.

Ideally, churches are there to hold us while we engage in this life-long process, but when filled with members (or leaders) who are “RBNS,” our struggle is looked upon as a failure on our part. We are told we just need to “get saved,” or “confess our sins,” or simply trust that they’ve got it all worked out for us from a place of authority. If we would just fall in line, everything would be okay and if we can’t, because we are gay, or divorced, or want to talk about women’s ordination, or whatever is taboo in our religion, that’s when we head for the door.

I haven’t done so, not yet and it saddens me that so many of my peers and the younger generation have done so. I understand it. I am not surprised by it, but I think we will all be sorrier for it. Our churches get more rigid without the leavening yeast of youthful creativity, passion and resources. The “nones,” and the SBNRs relinquish the hard-won wisdom of their religious ancestors, forcing themselves to reinvent the spiritual immunizations that will keep their children mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthy in this difficult world.

I think it comes down to community, another word that gets tossed around a lot in these conversations. Churches are crying out, “You need us! You don’t think you do, but you really do!” The “nones” are shouting back, “I’ve got my own community, thank you very much and it’s way less hypocritical than yours!” There is truth in both of those statements.

We were made for connection and belonging. We need community to hold us together, to remind us of whom we are and what we are about, to lift us up when we falter and praise us when we succeed. Church communities can do that better than any other when the gap between their “practiced values” and “aspirational values” is small. When Agape is the operative word in theory and in practice, we see Church and Community at their finest. But when the gap is large, it can be the loneliest feeling in the world to be in free-fall, knowing that the people who were supposed to love you in God’s name are nowhere to be found and are perhaps even the ones who gave you a shove off the ledge.

I know there are churches out there that do it differently. I have read hundreds of comments from men and women who want the “nones” to know that their church isn’t like that, that they love with their whole hearts and work earnestly to welcome and include everyone: rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, sure and not-so-sure. I’ve listened to sermons from their pastors, been witness to their diversity and cheered for the life-giving work they’ve done. I like to think my church falls into that category as well. But it doesn’t change the fact that if we have the word “Baptist” or “Catholic” or even the word “Christian” in our name, we are going to have an uphill row to hoe. Despite our protestations, we are associated with leaders who have not walked the talk and institutions that have allowed the “disengagement divide” to flourish for too long.

Though I’ve been on the ledge and even felt a nudge or two in the back, I’m not letting my “church” get rid of me that easily. I’ve benefitted too much from my religious background, education and traditions to let it go. My community is the church and the church is the people of God. I have far more faith, hope and trust in them as individuals and as a group than I do in an institution, whose leadership is charged with protecting tradition and the status quo.

Through his work as a community organizer, President Obama observed in Dreams from My Father that “communities are not a given in this country… Communities need to be created, fought for, tended like gardens. They expand or contract with the dreams of men” (and women I have to add).

I have big dreams for my community, the people of God, but I am pretty sure God’s dreams for us are even bigger. We have a garden before us, a plot of land to tend. I don’t want to fight against SBNRs, people who aspire to something beyond themselves. I want to fight with them to uphold the values that transcend our differences in religion, culture and language, values like Love, grace, beauty, compassion, mercy, justice and equality. I know that wherever those things are found, God is.

I am happy to tell you that Sojourners decided to use this blog as part of their Meet the Nones series. You can check it out here, and read other perspectives as well.