An intimate conversation with sacred experience

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Delivering Hannah

Hannah DeliveredI don’t understand how anyone, myself included, can create a dynamic story. Stories have a life all their own—their own wisdom, their own flaws, their own power. Today is launch day for Hannah, Delivered, and to celebrate I want to kneel down before the mystery that is story.

As you can imagine, I’ve been riding an emotional rollercoaster as I prepare to put a decade’s worth of effort into the public eye. One reader weeps, she’s so moved by the novel, and I’m elated. Another reader is furious about a mistake in the book, and I feel miserable. And so it goes, up and down, until I’m driving my family berserk.

When I’m having labor pains like this, my partner Emily sometimes asks me, “What would Hannah do?” The question makes me laugh, but it’s right on. Really she’s saying, “Consult something other than your mercurial feelings. What does the story say?” Continue reading

Going Virtual, Staying Real

origin_2435823037In case you’re wondering, I’m writing this (at least the first draft) by hand, in a spiral notebook with a fountain pen. My laptop makes a great lap desk. I like the new paper against the back of my hand and the ink easing from my pen tip. Writing can be a calming, sensory delight.

These days I’m spending more of my day than ever before on the computer—on the internet, even, where privacy doesn’t exist and stimulation is the rule. Continue reading

Penny Friend

penniesAnnie, my neighbor one block over, bends down to the curved rut running the length of the alley and scrapes a penny out of the sand. She brushes its scratched surface against her blue-jeans, then presses it into my palm. “You’re the lucky one today,” she says.

I slip the rough penny into my pants’ pocket, laughing at our odd ritual. It’s not strange that Annie bothers to pick up a penny; she is Buddhist and a poet, a woman who treasures details and is as frugal with resources as she is with words. Even one cent, tarnished and of little value, gains significance by our attention. Continue reading

Church: The Third Parent

I regularly dream about the church where I grew up:  A soaring Protestant-plain structure built in the early 1800’s with a handful of parishioners clustered in the first few pews.  I doubt more than twenty people have attended a Sunday service in the last three decades.  The congregation was vibrant when I was eight but then got hit by a parade of inept and at times unethical pastors.  By the time I was in high school, the church probably should have shut its doors.

That congregation loved me and raised me in the faith.  They were my first community—adults who winked at me during the service and attended my piano concerts and taught me about the Bible, youth who dared one another to explore the endless basement or climb up onto the roof, a family broader and stranger than my immediate family but just as reliable.  I see the same thing happening for Gwyn, who at five helps the usher light the candles and converses with grown-ups at coffee hour.  Church throws a wide blanket of people around my daughter.  She may someday stop attending or reject its teachings, but she’ll never not know this family.

I once had a therapist say that, for those raised in the church, the church is like a third parent with all of the psychological and emotional baggage of any dysfunctional family.  I worked through most of my unhealthy relational patterns with my own parents decades ago, but the church?  The church still haunts my dreams, triggers inexplicable emotions, and won’t let me go.  As infuriated as the institutional church and the messy local church make me, I can’t leave.  Church is in my blood.  I’m glad enough for it that I’m inflicting it on my daughter—and gracing her with it.  When she grows up, like it or not, she’ll have this foundation.

Last night, I dreamt that the church of my childhood was full of a great diversity of people.  The pastor led a processional; there were huge palm trees and singing.  In the dying church of my psyche, something new is happening.  I hope to God it’s life-giving and fruitful.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Leaning Into God

In the days after a fire destroyed a six-bay garage at the ARC Retreat Center as well as three cars, two years’ supply of firewood, and all my belongings, I was numb; I wandered around wearing other people’s clothes trying to remember who I was and what I believed.  Had God abandoned me?  The ring of towering Norwegian pines surrounding the garage had been scorched; I put my hands in their blackened, seeping wounds.  For the first time I understood the significance of Jesus’ wounds after the crucifixion.  God is with us; God hurts with us, and God is far bigger than our hurt.

When I think back on the crises and tragedies of my life—that fire, the death of my nephew, my father’s two kidney transplants, and Emily’s two bouts with cancer—I’m struck by how formative and transformative they are.  The times when I’m most broken by grief are also the times when God reaches into my heart and profoundly reshapes it.  I’m grateful for who I’ve become as a result.  It’s strange; I wouldn’t wish these hardships on anyone, and yet the greatest gifts of my life have emerged from them.

Crises make us vulnerable, and when we’re vulnerable God is better able to work in us.  In the midst of hardship, this isn’t always comforting.  The devastation I felt as I touched those sappy, scorched wounds in the trees seemed to double when I sensed God crying with me.  But afterward I took in the significance.  Afterward we can recognize that creative force working on a scale and in a dimension we can’t glimpse otherwise.  Something new has emerged.  We’re forever changed.

I think about this as we walk into the mounting ramifications of climate change.  We will feel vulnerable.  We will recognize our weaknesses.  We will feel guilty.  We will grieve the loss of species and stable weather.  But these are opportunities to lean into God, to invite God’s bigger, transforming presence into our hearts and communities.  A mighty shift is possible, if only we’re willing.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Our Light Burden

My friend Michael Bischoff gave a talk recently in which he publicly declared his participation in the “cult of personal development.”  Like so many of us, Michael strives to be a better person, a better leader, and to help make the world a better place.  What could be wrong with that?

Of course, a lot of good springs from the effort to be good.  But Michael illuminated some of its shadows:  When we’re working hard to improve our selves or world, we don’t appreciate what is.  As Michael’s daughter said, “Dad, you always try to change other people’s personalities.”  Ouch, Michael responded.  His daughter is perfect, and he knows it.  Striving also traps us; there’s no end-point at which we’re finally good enough.  When we try to address social ills through the lens of personal development, we address on our personal relationship to the problem rather than the problem itself.  When we seek out spiritual communities through the lens of personal development, we ask what the community can do for us rather than what we can do for the community, or whether being community is valuable in and of itself.

I believe it’s possible to live at the center of this paradox—to rest, knowing ourselves good within a good world, at the same time that we work like hell to change things.  The Serenity Prayer helps us enter this paradox, asking God for the grace to accept “the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.”  But we can go further, practicing humility and acceptance and gratitude in the midst of our efforts to bring about change.  Michael can thoroughly, peaceably appreciate his daughter and also challenge her to grow.

We can open ourselves to a powerful source of love that makes living in this paradox possible.  This, in fact, is the particular skill people of faith bring to the movement against climate change.  “My yoke is easy,” Jesus comforts us from the middle of this paradox, “and my burden is light.”

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Three weeks ago, our neighbor brought Gwyn a tiny monarch caterpillar crawling on a milkweed leaf.  We made a home for the little guy with an ice cream bucket and mosquito net, and watched in amazement as the leaf got gnawed and caterpillar poop appeared.  In no time flat our very hungry caterpillar was huge with gorgeous yellow and black stripes.  Then, overnight, it was gone.  A stunning emerald chrysalis hung from the net.

This whole transformation feels tender and critical given the fact that the monarch population was decimated this year by heat in Mexico—that is, by global warming.  We’re careful with our little fellow.  And it’s got me thinking about change.  Why is change so hard?  Of course, the caterpillar’s transformation is a natural process, just like Gwyn’s growing up and my growing old, but real change, the kind that can stop global warming or sober us up or bring about reconciliation, is ridiculously difficult.  What if, for instance, the church wanted to become an advocate for the environment?  What would it take?

In his book Change or Die, Alan Deutschman studied instances where people have successfully changed to identify three key supports that make change possible.  First, you form a new relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope—think AA meetings.  Second, this new relationship helps you learn, practice, and master new habits and skills.  And third, the new relationship helps you reframe your thinking so you see your life and the world in an entirely new way.*

Note how relationships and community are essential for bringing about personal and social change.  This is why I believe the church must leap into the effort to stop global warming:  Churches’ institutional support for relationship-building can be leveraged to change people’s beliefs and behavior patterns.  Or, for a more faithful perspective, a church community can and should open itself to God’s transforming presence.  Our work as Christians is to break out of our cocoons, again and again, so God can make of us something new.  What we most need now is a new relationship to the earth so it will be healthy for our children and our children’s children.  Our faith tells us that a loving, justice-seeking relationship to the earth and each other is possible.

This morning Gwyn woke me up:  “Mama, the butterfly’s here!”  The chrysalis is now a webby shell; the monarch’s wings are wrinkled, its body is stunning black with white dots.  This afternoon, we’ll take this miracle out to the yard and release it.  And I’ll pray for a similar change in the church.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

* Thanks to Mary Anne Casey for this information!

Peeling the Onion

So I’m happily reading the Land Stewardship Project newsletter when I come across this passage, about a tribally supported agricultural organization:

Growing food in the community and getting people to consume it are different things.  That’s why Wozupi provides classes for the public throughout the year on not only food production, but preparation and preserving.  “We’re recognizing that a lot of our TSA members may not have ever peeled an onion before,” says Yoshino.

I feel punched in the gut, not unlike receiving the news that the monarch butterfly population was decimated by hot weather this year, or an earlier LSP article that mentioned how many grade school kids are surprised to learn that carrots come out of the ground.  Never peeled an onion?!  This is tragedy of an order I can barely comprehend.  Because if you’re an adult who’s never peeled an onion, chances are good you eat a lot of prepared or fast food, and bear the health consequences.  And you don’t have access to vegetables at your nearest store, so you don’t know the pleasurable heft of a bag of onions.  And you don’t know what it’s like to have onions sautéing in butter on the stove, scenting up your kitchen.  And you don’t eat meals around the table with family.  And you’ve never, ever pulled a beautiful gold globe out of the soil.

Onions are foundational in cooking, regardless of culture or creed, so life without peeling onions is life without real food.

Strangely, though, what really gets me is the loss of the metaphor.  You need to peel away the layers of an onion to understand how multidimensional life is, how layer after layer contributes to the whole.  Or how an onion can have one rotten layer in the middle of pearly, crisp white.  Sink a knife into an onion and your eyes will sting, you won’t be able to see what you’re doing for all the tears, but it’s worth it once the skillet warms and that heady, pungent scent fills the house.

Humans need intimacy with our food because food is wise; it shows us who we are.  We need onions to teach us how bound up pain and pleasure are, how rewarding it is to look beyond the surface, and how a vegetable that tastes horrid one moment can be transformed by heat into something heavenly.  The tragedy that parallels the environmental crisis is our loss of connection to the earth.  Thank God for organizations like Wozupi and LSP, who are holding up onions and saying, “Here.  I’ll show you how.”                                                            –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Christ’s Body, Earth’s Body

Something’s got to change. 

I mean in my life and how I respond to the environmental crisis.  Because global warming threatens our political stability, our food system, and our health; it’s already eliminating the water source for thousands and will soon displace whole populations, particularly in poor countries.  Things are bad.  Out of love for the earth, out of Christian duty, out of concern for the world our children will inherit, something’s got to change.

Emily and I do what we can.  We grow our own food, wash and recycle our plastic baggies, bike most places, get our energy from wind power, compost, strive for zero waste, buy local organic food, we even cook with a solar cooker, for heaven’s sake.  It’s not enough.  We’ll continue to make what lifestyle changes we can, but they won’t be enough.

So here I stand, a small, caring person, helpless in the face of a daunting problem.  The institutions with the most influence (governments, corporations) seem unapproachable.  The more email petitions I click, the more ineffective I feel.  I could write letters, but where do I start?

In this state I turn to the church.  Church moves me beyond my small self into a larger body.  Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, my voice dissolves into a relationship far broader than I can conjure alone.  Together we create a welcoming, healing presence in a hurt city.  We contribute money to United Methodist Church missions and make UMCOR, an important relief organization.  Church helps me participate in Christ’s body, something private faith can never do.  In the face of environmental disaster, I need—perhaps we all need—church.

Can church revitalize our faith during these fearful times?  Can church help us build the resilience we need to deal with crisis?  Can church rally us, empower us, and amplify our calls for change?  Yes.  But it’s not yet.  Earth’s body needs Christ’s body.  I wonder whether we can respond to this call.

–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Ten Glimpses of God in Five Hours

  1. Gwyn’s sick, which means two nights of interrupted sleep.  This morning she arrives in our dark bedroom wanting to play.  I don’t.  She curls up at my feet, right where the cat sleeps, and lays still for five minutes.
  2. Snow has dusted the earth.  It falls all morning in trace amounts, miniscule white thoughts moving through air.
  3. Hot tea fills my belly.
  4. Emily can’t wait to get to work, she loves what she’s doing so much.
  5. Gwyn watches movies, a special treat reserved for when she’s sick.  She’s snuggled under a blanket on the couch.  I keep her company by cleaning out the hall desk.  Stationary, old maps, coupons, manila envelopes, photos.  I haven’t sorted this stuff in years.  Quiet organizing calms me, as though tossing old bus schedules has a counterpart in my heart.  Curious George gets himself into innocent mischief.
  6. I show Gwyn the glitter I’ve found.  Her exhausted, teary face lights up.  “Can I do a craft?” she asks.  She pours Elmer’s onto black paper, then sprinkles the glitter.  Gold stars shine in the darkness.
  7. The toilet upstairs hasn’t been working right for a month.  To pee at night we have to go downstairs.  Too cheap to hire a plumber, I’ve been in plumbing hell a few hours each night this week.  This morning I run to the hardware store, where the owner knows my struggles.  The connector I need is shorter than the comparable one they sell.  “Buy the long one,” he tells me, “and twist it into a loop.”  His easy, brilliant solution fills me with plumbing joy.
  8. Lunch is leftover pork roast, slightly salted.
  9. I delete dozens of emails from advocacy organizations working for gun control, just wages, GLBT rights, a healthy environment… Up against my limited time, I’m humbled by the abundance of good effort in our world.
  10. This moment, now:  The gratitude I feel writing these words.
    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
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