I’m writing you this because many of you are grieving. Lost parents, lovers, friends, mentors, children, homelands, senses of self and assumed safety. You have lost, and now you are feeling some sort of response to that loss. This is my love letter to you. This is my way of saying I see you. Let this be the letter you keep under your pillow to keep nightmares at bay, or the one you carry with you for strength. Let the words sink into your grief and reduce you to tears. Let it outrage you and make you want to throw things because how dare I presume to write to a large group about something as particular as grief. However it works, let it work on you, because the thing about love letters is that they are true, even if that truth is a hard one to bear. Love is not easy nor is it always fun. It’s powerful though, and that power can be enough to propel you over mountains. I love you, and it pains me to know that I cannot personally comfort you all. We might not have reached that level of friendship, or we might live far from each other. Maybe you just prefer to spend those fresh, raw moments alone. Maybe you only want company when you’re at your best. Whatever the reason, I love you. I love you despite those reasons. In some cases, I love you because of those reasons. I love you, and I’m thinking of you as you adjust to your “new normal.”
You will never be the same person you were before, but like a river cutting through a canyon this wound will carve you anew, revealing sides of yourself that you never knew were there. You might redefine your sense of self. You might reach a new depth in your strength. Hell, you might even decide to shirk your current life path to pursue that passion you abandoned or reduced to a hobby because your grief is teaching you that life is short. Indeed, life is short. We are given small amounts of time on this planet to love a lot of people. It might seem like there isn’t enough time, but I hope that doesn’t stop you from continuing to love. I hope it lights a fire within you to love more fiercely because you see that every life is a death waiting to happen. That each moment we have together is precious. If anything, I hope you continue to love because life will be harder after this. You might need that love to get you through to the next day. Continue reading “A Letter to My Friends in Times of Loss”→
“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all you mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these”
Gospel of Mark 12:29-31, NRSV
This is possibly my favorite passage in the Bible. I love it because it sums the whole of the Christian mission into a few succinct lines that speak to the heart. The first passage is pretty straight forward: love God with every fiber of your physical, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual self. God is the one through whom all things happen. I don’t mean this in a dualistic sort of way, where God is responsible for only the “good” things, thus leaving the rest to whichever name for evil you want to conjure. I mean all things. Of course, “all things” means something different to a cynic than it does to an optimist. That’s not to sat that those are the only two kinds of people; those are just two examples.
I’m learning to be an optimist. Since I started walking deeper into faith a few years ago, I find it difficult for me to justify my cynicism. Each day I wake up, and notice that the sky is a different shade of blue or grey than it was the previous day, or that the leaves grow slightly more yellow as the season progresses. These things are beautiful, and the plight of the world cannot take away from me the natural beauty of it. That said, I’m still learning and I have hard days too.
For me, the meat of this passage rests in the simplicity of “love your neighbor as yourself.” I love this because it’s so simple, and often repeated, but one of the hardest things in the world to do: Love your neighbor as yourself. This command is two-fold. Love your neighbor and love yourself. Why? Because both you and your neighbor are worthy of the love of God. Period.
I’m learning to be an optimist by learning to love myself through the love of God. Tonight, I tapped into the deepest places in my muscle memory where I store some of my worst memories. As I sat holding my shoulders and crying the hardest I ever may have in my life, the things that ran through my head were the times in my life when I thought that God had abandoned me. I remembered “good friends” in high school telling me that I couldn’t be a Christian unless I turned my back on myself. Flashes of people telling me that they worried for my soul because I didn’t know the grace of God even though I was sure in my heart of hearts that God was rooting for me. In those days, I was depressed, suicidal, and lonely. These were themes that would repeat themselves up until I decided to medically transition (not to say that medical transition is for everyone who is trans* identified, just my experience).
These days, the muscles in my shoulders are tight from carrying all the weight of those years. Tonight, I imagined all of it melting away and coming out of me as I held my hands to my shoulder. It did in the form of tears. They were tears of hurt, yes, but past hurts that needed to be washed away in a sea of healing. I am trying to heal myself. I think it is working. Since I’ve relocated, I’ve been able to feel in my body where anxiety happens. I am cognizant of my triggers and actively working through them in all the manifestations of my spirit. I’m happy. Adjustment is hard. It always has been for me, but I know that the difficulty will make me stronger. So now, I grow into the happy person that I’ve always wanted to be. I can safely say that I love myself in that I am committed to keeping myself healthy so that I can be the best me possible. Loving God has helped me to love myself. Each day that I love myself a little more, I love God that much more. It’s a cyclical relationship in which I am happy to take part. Love is a journey. I’m in it, going through it, fighting for it, and, often fighting with it. Above all, I’m intentional about it. I can’t go in to it hoping that I will maybe change someday. I work for it so that I change every day.
Each day, I get a little stronger. Each day, I get a little more me. It’s–seriously–the best feeling in the world.
I distinctly remember Thursday September 21, 2011. I felt a bit off kilter as if I hadn’t fully woken up all day, and I dreaded having to go to work in the evening. It was the day that Troy Davis was executed in Georgia for a crime that he may not have committed. After rejection of a last minute appeal to the US Supreme Court, he was executed by lethal injection. I had spent months leading up to it informing myself of the case and all the appeals thinking that this time they had to do something in favor of him with the illusive “they” being the US court system and “him” being a black man on death row. They didn’t. I worked my usual 2:30 to 10:30 with an indescribable feeling of heaviness in my bones. Troy Davis died at 11:08pm EDT.
This was also the day that I met Emily. I’ve only encountered her twice in my life. The first time, she came through my line with a small basket of snacks and informed me that she was doing pretty lousy because “they” were about to execute an innocent man. Right then, I wanted to cry because for some reason I felt like I had been seen. It was as if she was speaking directly to my heart and could tell that I was feeling the same thing. I told her that I was trying to stay positive. The court hadn’t rejected the appeal as of 4pm PST. By 6pm, she had called the store to let me know that the court did indeed reject the appeal, and that she was praying for Troy, his family, and me. The second time we met, we were surrounded by a group of unlikely mutual friends. By this time, both of us had forgotten that we had met previously. We all discussed current events and the conversation naturally flowed to the George Zimmerman trial. Once again, Emily was praying, this time for the Martin family, and for George Zimmerman.
Praying is difficult because people have a hard time being vulnerable. We have a hard time opening ourselves to our real needs because those needs might be covered by the dark places in ourselves that we all fear. When we look at this passage, the message is so obvious that it’s difficult to let it wash through the soul to figure out what it’s really trying to communicate. Jesus teaches us to pray in the way that children address their parents. Pray as vulnerably as children would. Children are exposed, raw masses of emotion that couldn’t mask how they truly feel even if they try. Jesus teaches us to pray with this type of unbridled, shameless emotion using simple requests:
Father, bring your kingdom and your justice to us. Give us enough food today to eat today. Give us the forgiveness that we give to others. Do not let others persecute us for who we are.
Simple requests of dire necessity: feed us, forgive us, and bring us justice. Most importantly, let us live to ask again tomorrow. I’m sure that the people who followed Jesus throughout his journey witnessed the urgency of this prayer. It was dangerous to be a Jesus-follower then. There was no guarantee of food, and they were likely to be killed if found. Today, these are all things that we take for granted. Many of us have access to so much food that we waste tons upon tons of it each year. We feel entitled to forgiveness once an apology is made regardless of whether the apology came from a significant amount of self-work in understanding our errors and how to change. We take the very lives we live for granted. In a society where abundance is the norm, we don’t think to pray for things that we think we already have, just the things we want. Often times, what we want most is change.
I’ve learned that change happens in waves. The Civil Rights Movement happened in three waves. The abolition of slavery all the way through Reconstruction was the first wave. The second wave was Brown v. Board and the desegregation of the South all the way through the Black Power movements of the 60s and 70s. The third wave appeared in the form of Affirmative Action and the growth of the feminist movements, the gay rights movement, and the farm worker’s movement. I do believe that we are on the verge of a fourth wave. This fourth wave wants to deconstruct the systemic structures of racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia.
If you’ve been paying attention to the national news, you may have noticed that there a lot more stories with underlying racism than usual. It’s an elephant in the room that everyone wants so badly to ignore, but it’s right there staring us in the face. That people can stalk, harass, and shoot my brothers terrifies me. That a woman of color in the same state who fired warning shots at her abusive husband can’t claim the self defense and is facing 20 years in prison. Some of these cases spur some action from folks on the outside: justice for Troy Davis, CeCe McDonald, the New Jersey 7, Oscar Grant. All of these movements, though, have been tightly focused on one individual without applying their message more broadly. Justice for Troy Davis; what about me? What about you? With the recent verdict on the Zimmerman trial, the question of how we demand justice for all of us has been on the forefront of my mind. Maybe it’s because Trayvon Martin likely could have been me or my brother or any one of my male cousins. Maybe it’s because justice is an essential piece of God’s kingdom. Maybe, just maybe, it’s because I have this idea that once we figure this out, we will be able to unravel all of our oppressive histories and weave them together to create something beautiful. This is the fourth wave: justice ringing out through the vibrations of many hearts beating with love for all of our brothers and sisters regardless of religion, gender identity, sexuality, or skin color.
In bell hooks’ book All About Love, she writes, “When angels speak of love they tell us it is only by loving that we enter an earthly paradise. They tell us paradise is our home and love our true destiny.” If you look outside of one of these windows, you will see the tops of trees stretching out to the bluest ocean. This is paradise. It’s right here. It can be anywhere, so long as we can stop fearing and start loving one another. We must change whatever it is in us that causes prejudice and hatred.
This is something we need, and it starts with prayer.
We have to pray with patience and perseverance. Verses 5-13 teach us that God answers prayers period—no ifs, ands, or buts. Ask and you shall receive, search and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened for you. One thing that we have to understand is that we cannot begin to understand the will of God, and that sometimes, like all parents, God says no. Sometimes we ask for things that aren’t good for us. Maybe there’s something better in store than what it is that we’re asking. Maybe that hardship is an opportunity for growth that we need more than whatever it is that we’re asking. This doesn’t mean that we have done anything wrong. It means that we sometimes need reminders that we don’t have all the answers, and that we’re not always right. Sometimes, we don’t know what we need (I don’t). Søren Kierkegaard, one of my favorite philosophers, said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Our prayers will not incite a change in God, but they will excite God to change us. That’s what we want right? We want to know that God will excite a change in us such that we can move mountains and touch hearts all the while working together to do so. We want to be God’s people, living in God’s kingdom, doing God’s work on Earth. The very first thing we have to do is pray. We have to pray while doing the work. Then we have to pray once the work is done because it’s likely that there’s actually more work.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Emily and whether I will see her again. She has no idea how much she’s impacted my life in two brief encounters. All I can say is that she has become a role model for me in prayer. Gandhi said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” We all have weaknesses. We are all broken and we have all fallen apart at some time. All of our souls have longings for things like love, justice and peace. We just have to keep ourselves open to asking.