on Psalm 10
New Revised Standard Version
An Open Letter to My Students on the Eve of the Orlando Shooting.
June 12, 2016
You likely woke up today as I did: late. You may or may not have turned on the news as is my morning wake-up custom, coffee in hand and multiple snoozes later. Within moments it became clear that there was yet another mass shooting while we were sleeping. This morning’s shooting at a gay night club in Orlando. Over 100 dead and injured.
I remember thinking ‘My soon-to-be godson is to be baptized today. My responsibilities seem yet-again larger now.’
I’m late to the service by a few minutes this morning; I know you’re not surprised. I stood too long at the television in my bedroom, clenching the wooden ledge on top of the dresser left in the room by my great, great-aunts who were the unusual of their era; they were highly educated, remarkably fashionable, and unusually independent women from a time where that was not allowed. No doubt they were recipients of both celebration and judgment. The dresser left in the bedroom of this house they used which I now sleep in has new fingernail marks as of this morning, left accidentally as I should have been dressing for a baptismal service but was instead being washed again in the blood of others.
“I also remember this, and wish I did not,” as Didion once said. I remember that I was not surprised.
Yet another killing, this time the largest mass shooting in our states’ history and the largest terrorist attack on US soil since my freshmen year of college when I sat in a lecture hall of Blanchard at Wheaton and watched the towers fall before my eyes.
I remember this morning thinking that I was surprised that morning as an 18-year-old hopeful, but that I am not surprised now as a 32-year-old hopeful. And it is the hopefulness of my better wiring which has been wanting to talk to all of you all day long today, even though you’ve managed to sneak away from me for the summer. I’ve managed to talk to you in one of our random, side conversations all day long in my head regardless. Then I decided that I hope you might hear it.
Many of you value your faith deeply; I do as well. Because of this, those who believe differently from you are owed your love and honor. The faith you claim has told you so; the faith leaders you are bothered by have challenged this. Follow your faith.
Many of you think
issues of social policy and social welfare,
wealth and poverty,
emails to your governors and senators and representatives
(unanswered as most of them go…which you will remember),
childhood development and influence,
family structure and complexity,
group norms and roles,
mob mentalities and social capacities,
and research formulas and findings
aren’t connected in any real way
to your deep desire to help those who are in need.
The crimes of today should remind you that these things are all connected.
The language and now law signed in by Governor Bill Haslam in Tennessee that allow therapists to legally hate and discriminate by refusing counseling to those of the LGBTQ community affected by today’s mass shooting is an issue of policy, welfare, wealth and poverty, legislators who listen and those who ignore (and are paid to do so, which you will remember), legislation and its [silent] funders, biological development and its influences, structure, complexity, norms, roles, mob mentalities and social capacities, research and its findings…
This language and this legislation and these legislators and these voices are the authors of the men and women who will come into your offices and onto your caseloads wounded, orphans of those killed by this morning’s violence, orphans of those who had parents who lived lives of silence or submission to a norm, or stood silently in the back of your sanctuaries on mornings like these as you went to church and thought it was a regular Sunday morning.
I felt the need all day long today, now pushing the clock to make it honest, to let you know that I expect the world of you.
I am pretty sure I have told you this. You will be the best.
I expect a whole other kind of world from you. I expect you to wake up on days like today with the news of the moment and the heart of a saint that is both willing to break the rules and willing to break the norms to dig your fingernails into the wooden ledge on top of the dresser and be late for something planned and appropriate because you decided you had to stand up and speak out for something possibly inappropriate because it puts all of our humanity at risk.
So in class, when I hound you and harass you and rap at you and sing at you and yell at you and take points from you and even when I feed you in an effort to buy you, please know this: I do all these things so that some day, some Sunday morning when someone is waking up and committing to go to church and pledge gratefully to be a godfather for a young man or young woman who has not yet learned to distrust the world…
I do all these things so that you will remember that it will never be okay for us to not be surprised at this kind of hateful news that greeted us this morning.
I’m counting on you.
Pine Tree Dr.
Several times the last few weeks I’ve been struck with a kind of running-out-of-time panic while standing in front of students with pens in hands, phones in hands, laptops on desks, mostly paying attention and a few paying attention to look like they are paying attention.
I’m not sure what the sudden shock-dropping imperative is connected to my eye-welling realization that I have them for such a short time, and they will spend such a long time working beside people who have been told and treated like they are worthless more times than I can generously imagine.
There are other similar but less such moments of sudden shock when I’m trying to catch up with emails and trying to catch up with emails and trying to figure out what it means to operate between clients and communities and friends and students who expect me to tell them how to do it. I don’t really know how to do it, to be fair.
But I also know that my friends hear me either talk like I know what I’m doing or like I know I must figure out what I’m doing. I know the people I work with day to day believe that I am anticipating something worthwhile and valuable to come from the work, or at least I know I don’t have any other options even if what I’m doing doesn’t matter.
It’s those moments, though, where I’m on the floor or in my chair with a client as I remember (between my fears of taxes and the email I forgot to answer) that there are human beings waiting for someone to acknowledge that they are strong as hell. It’s those same moments where I see my students, pens and phones and laptops in hand (part attention, part facebook, part studying, part snapchatting), with their whole lives in the field in front of them.
And on Saturday nights when I should be doing something ridiculous and irresponsible and hilarious, I find myself happily grading their papers and praying that somehow, between my ridiculousness and their distractedness, that they hear me say the human beings in front of them in the world need someone. They need someone to look at them, to see them,to see the story behind their eyes that says they are bigger and badder and bolder than everything about them would suggest. To look at them and say they are waiting for the one person who might tell them truth about what they are made of instead of the lie of what they think they are supposed to be.
And I want my students to know that the person their clients are waiting on are the people in my classroom behind their awkward desks, pen, phone, laptop and all. And I want my students to remind me as I stand in front of them and get punched in the emotional jugular with the out-of-nowhere reminder that no matter what I am thinking about or dealing with, when I show up for work I am looking at a group students who have the power to change the hateful, xenophobic, racist, sexist, imperialistic and hateful world I wake up in and operate within every morning.
They deserve it: client and student.
I watched my own mother file in, first in line of the four women. The two directly behind her I know well and have a heavy respect for as game-changers, rule-writers, integrity-definers, and culture-forgers. The fourth I’ve never met in person and somehow now in this moment feel embarrassed because I know her name and legacy well. These four women together are the honorary pallbearers for Ann Livingstone today, a funeral that is unwelcome and too early for her lifetime and her influence in our own. They are each dressed in black, of course, as they filed in St. Luke’s historic building, but with a sharp and intentional splash of red as Ann had instructed.
I picked up flowers later that afternoon for the tables and counters and surfaces at Mom and Dad’s house later that night. I was looking for all white blooms, and then remembered the instruction for a punch of red. So all white was chosen, and a punch of red per Ann’s request. A southern dinner for family and friends, and in Ann’s case…students, was held at Mom and Dad’s house the evening of the funeral.
The door I came home late through nearly two decades ago as a teenager I was now opening to one-time students who had become Ann’s students either officially in a classroom or practically in the world because she instilled in them this deep longing to work excellently and brilliantly and faithfully and daringly in their respective fields, whether political science or peacemaking or religion or community development or justice or healthcare or human rights. They were arriving on our from porch from California and Canada to who knows where paying respects and mourning the reality that Ann was now, whether she wanted to or not, offering the ultimate assignment: taking on the work that had now been stolen from her far too soon.
A few days ago, a good friend of mine posted online an image of our high school English Lit teacher Lisa Kee. She was too crazy to categorize, and too sincere to discount. She was diagnosed with cancer before our eyes as we watched from the desks in her classroom. She proceeded to teach us new ways of being honest with our own humanity, our own fears, our own faith, and our own responsibilities to read and write. She instilled in us the responsibility that by doing so we were shaping the world around us. She told us about the horror of waking up to baldness because of chemo, the value of fresh air and moon beams when you’re trapped in a sterile hospital room, and the fear of knowing that death is closer than it had been invited.
For me, and for many, she was the first person who ever made it clear that my voice was worth using and worth being heard, and therefore worth being trained and challenged because our shared humanity was at stake.
When Mrs. Kee died, her funeral was the biggest of any class reunion I’ve ever been to. To invoke her name shapes the conversation that follows, and raises the bar of what we expect among each of us. Ann was never my professor, but I’m the recipient of those she taught, both officially as students who are now my friends and colleagues, and unofficially as friends, like my parents, who have been shaped and challenged and pushed to live wholeheartedly because of what she has taught them.
Death is bullshit.
But shots of red, unexpected and insistent fugues, the filing in of these four pallbearers, and images of the past wrestle hard against it, fighting honorably against grief in making way to the surface insisting the work must continue. To live with honesty, teach with integrity and urgency, and die with dignity are a sharp lesson and challenge.
Justice waits for us to fight for it. Peace waits for us to make it. Goodness waits for us live into it.
And in the loss of our larger-than-life teachers who have now been stolen by the fight, we find ourselves pushing a little harder to pass on the imperative of living in ways that are worthy of the human spirit.
To Lisa Kee and to Ann Livingstone, I will do my best. And I will push my students with all I have to do their bests.
We all will.
I would most definitely be lying if I said it happens every time. It most definitely does not happen every time. But when it’s not a season of dryness, it happens a lot. Today was one of those days. Tuesday was one of those days. Last Wednesday was one of those days.
There comes a split second in the middle of whatever I’m doing where I realize, somehow, that space
and importance crash in on one another in the middle of what would otherwise be a regular day or a regular moment at work, in work, while working.
Tuesday I stood in front of a group of students who I’ve slowly been getting to know, pointed partly to the screen behind me, projector light across half my face revealing an obvious typo in my otherwise regular presentation. My hands are in the air, my mind is on a person who once sat in my counseling office, and my words are coming out as an imperative I once made fun of a past professor for saying all the time.
“But you will be different. You will be better than everyone else. You will be the one person they come in contact with who looks at them and treats them like the actual human beings they are. These are human beings. You are working with humans. And you will be the best. You will be better than all of your coworkers. You will be excellent. They deserve it.”
Students are half-confused, half still waking up, half-engaged, and some hopefully teeming with the thought they could actually change the course of history in doing excellent work with human beings.
A few hours later, after grading quickly and pouring in caffeine, I’m standing in the same spot with a different group. I find myself reading through a poem about the people who have come before us and challenged everything we think we know about who deserves to be treated like a human being. And I almost lost my composure for a moment.
And then last Wednesday, looking people in the face and listening to them tell me about their perseverance and their hopefulness when everything tells them there’s no reason to keep fighting, I realize I’m in some kind of sacred space where humanity crashes into reality and brings clarity for a split second before exploding back into chaos and confusion once again.
And then today.
Listening to a man the same age and race and history as my grandfathers, were they still speaking wisdom over me in the flesh, saying with tears in his eyes and a knot in his throat,
“Brotherhood & sisterhood
among people of all kinds
is not so wild and crazy a dream
as the people who
profit from postponing it
would have you believe.” – B. Zellner
He was once in the KKK, as was his pastor father. But he joined the freedom riders and was pulled bleeding across the street with his black brothers and sisters, many of whom were killed.
And listening to him tell his story and say these words in front of me as I watch my students sit beside and around me, with lives of social work and beloved-community bringing and rule-breaking completely ahead of them
And then tonight
Driving home from sitting with a friend at another board meeting where numbers and spreadsheets and arguments and committee reports are ultimately about people getting the care and support and dignity they deserve because they are human beings.
It’s then that something clicks and says it’s worth being so tired and so ready for bed if it means that people are treated like the human beings they actually are. It must be. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s so elusive.
And it doesn’t happen every day, every time, every meeting.
But it happens just enough to remind me that there are no other actual options but to wade into these kinds of waters and fight these kinds of fights
And hope that the students and the clients and the colleagues and the men who marched all those years ago will keep doing the same…
on days when it happens
but mostly on days when it doesn’t
About five years ago, I sat next to her the morning she was trying church again. I understand why she had quit trying altogether up until now…the threats and the punches from her husband, the need to stay in the marriage from her old church and pastor, the reality of how in hell to care for her children and protect herself at the same time. I couldn’t believe she showed up to begin with. And on that Sunday morning, the sermon itself was ultimately about how wives should keep doing the right thing even when their husbands’ don’t in hopes that their husbands will come around. God bless.
For people dealing with socks in the floor or toilet seats left up, perhaps this is not a problematic statement. But the reality that more than two thirds of christian women in violent relationships feel like it’s their duty to tolerate the violence1 makes it a problem. The difficulty with knowing that nine out of ten church-going, christian women interviewed felt that their husbands used their religion and doctrine to support their abuse2 makes it even messier.
I worked at the church at that time, so I found myself on Monday morning wringing my hands while deciding whether or not to mention this difficulty to the preacher. When walking in that morning, one of the staff who worked there at the time asked if I had been at church the day before and what I thought about it. After playing dumb and answering with questions, it became clear that she was a survivor of domestic violence and left the sermon the day before feeling guilty for leaving the marriage. Another conversation with yet another church staffer made it clear that there were at least two women in the building who had been in “christian” marriages in the past where domestic violence was present. They had both pushed courageously through their church’s tradition that you have to stay, wait it out, and keep doing the right thing in hopes that your male “head of the christian marriage” will come around. The two of them before 9:30 in the morning made it clear that I had to mention this issue to the preacher in hopes that in the future he would be willing to make the caveat to avoid these silent sufferers leaving church thinking God is mad at them for their bravery in avoiding assault.
His response when I scheduled a meeting with him about the issue?
“You can caveat a sermon to death.”
A few days later, an additional response.
“It’s not your place to talk to me like you’re my teacher.”
I managed to leave my employment at that church too many months later after these interactions. I’ve learned in the meantime, now serving my second year as chair for an incredible nonprofit working to empower women and men in abusive relationships to get the hell out, the reality that many churches are afraid to address head on the issues of domestic violence out of fear that people are looking for excuses for divorce.
Please catch your breath with me.
Many churches and their male pastors, in this area at least, are afraid to address head on the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault out of fear that women are looking for excuses for divorce. Or, for the incredibly important reason that we can “caveat a sermon to death.”
To my friend that Sunday morning sitting next to me, leg and arm muscles tightening as you received word from the pastor that you should stick it out, I’m so sorry. I wan you I left. I moved on. And I wish I had never invited you. To church staff who pushed through the same issues, I’m so sorry. I left. I want you to know I moved on. And so did you. To the women who are still in church and still in marriages and still wondering whether or not God honors marriage more than your own safety and dignity, I have good news. He is for you.
This past Sunday, I watched as the Executive Director of WRAP, the nonprofit working to empower survivors of sexual and domestic violence, climbed the steps to the microphone at my church during the middle of the service. I felt my watery eyes turn on as she spoke gently and directly about the number of women who show up for services at WRAP and say that they were afraid to tell their churches because they were afraid they wouldn’t be believed. I watched the priest walk over to this woman as she was trying to make her way off the platform as he said, “please don’t go yet. If I can, I’d like to pray for you and the people your organization works with.” I watched him put his arms around her and say, “Thank you God for women like Daryl, and for places like WRAP, and for the work they do as a part of your church to let people know your heart if for marriages and families of mutual respect. You are a God who wants peace in families, and safety for all in the family. We know, God, that you are never for the abuse of your children. So we say today that we stand with you against domestic violence for all reasons. Empower your servants to work with great power to free those in danger, and know that you are with them.”
You will go to church tomorrow. Is your church willing to honor peace over abusive marriage? Ask. Find out. Make it an issue, and make sure that your church will speak up. The people affected by these issues won’t cause problems in your congregations; they will go home and take another fist to the face. The burden is ours. The insistence is His.
If you or someone you know is experiencing or has experienced domestic or sexual violence, contact WRAP by visiting www.wraptn.org.
1 Nash, S. T., Faulkner, C., & Abell, R. R. (2013). Abused conservative Christian wives: Treatment considerations for practitioners. Counseling and Values (58). October, pp. 205-220.
2. Nickmeyer, N., Levitt, H. & Horne, S. G. (2010). Putting on Sunday best: The silencing of battered women within Christian faith communities. Feminism and Psychology. (20)2. February, pp. 94-113.
We can’t bare it anymore.
We are waiting to see what you do
and we are waiting to see how you move forward.
Your self-definitions based on hatred and bigotry and xenophobia
don’t resonate with us anymore
or maybe they never did, but we are telling you now.
They don’t resonate with us
because the people we live with and work with
are people harmed by your xenophobia and bigotry and hatred.
And we take that personally.
You taught us to take harm personally.
So now we are working and walking
slowly in the world,
hoping to find the place and the people
who can’t bare it anymore either.
Especially not in his name.
We are looking for the people who
just like us
find themselves captivated by a story
a little bigger,
a lot bigger
than a story of againstness
a lot bigger
than a story of notness.
We are working and walking and hoping and looking
for each other.
We are the people who are leaning into a
more kingdom-minded future.
A future where the gospel grows thick
in the soil of surprising gratitude
We don’t hate our neighbors.
We aren’t afraid of them.
We love them,
and we’re following a Christ who taught us to.
So we are waiting to see what you do.
Pine Tree Dr
Here I am in an empty church. In it, between the rows of pews, on the tile floor, under the silent cross, I walk along a boundary, a place in between heaven and earth. The Celts called it thin space….The church calendar calls into consciousness the existence of a world uninhabited by efficiency, a world filled with the excessiveness of saints, ashes, smoke, fire; it fills my heart with both dread and hope. It tells of journeys and mysteries, things “seen and unseen,” the world of the almost known. It dreams impossibilities: a sea divided in two, five thousand fed by a loaf and two fishes, a man raised from the dead.
– Nora Gallagher
Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith
It seemed as though every few breaths had to be wrestled quietly to keep exhales from becoming tears. I don’t think tears of any kind of sadness, although some seem wrapped together with a letting go of things that no longer fit but were desperately and perfectly holy when they once did. Others pregnant with promises that are only clear today after all this time of begging for clarity. Others coated in laughter of flying monkeys and brave children.
After being on the road––or in the air––for nearly a month, I returned to the desks and sessions and meetings and paperwork and conference calls of the work week last Monday. With the promise of daylight savings time still a terribly long week away, I traveled back from exhilarating speaking and learning with stellar servants in Seattle and Memphis and the slow and holy days of the beach with lifelong and new friends, to the pounding of alarms in the still-dark mornings of my own still room.
The threat would be, of course, that the magic only happens when things are outside of the routine. Only with toes buried in the sand and waves ruining the back pages of novels do we cross into the thin spaces. Only with lecture halls and presentations and learning credits pending do we feel the rush of the practice and the theory. Only with the frantic boarding runs do we surmise that we are living something exciting.
But then, on a Monday morning as regular as any other, the shower makes us look a little more alive than we feel, the coffee makes us a little friendlier in a few short moments, and the first meeting, the first client, the first conference call reminds us that we love what we do and the people we get to do it with.
And the thin space becomes so thick we can taste it and name it and break it as if it were in itself that holy meal.
So today, a week later, with more travel on the edge of the next few days, I’m giving thanks for a week of clients, a week of paperwork, a week of surprise parties and the lies they require, a week of out of town guests and in town friends over drinks.
So today, a week later, I find myself at the altar, imagining that table that spreads all the way to family in Nicaragua and all the way to family in Cape Town, and all the way to family who have already moved a little closer to something better on the other side of time, and I was wrestling breaths in order to exhale without bursting into tears. Tears of letting go and holding on. Tears of the promise that I have no idea what I’m doing, but somehow I feel alive while I’m doing it and I feel loved getting to do it with such incredible people, and I feel honored doing in on behalf of those so often not welcomed at the table.
So today, a week later, I find myself at the altar recognizing that the thin space has become so thick at this particular moment in time, that I let it win and with the tears that hit the hands that hold the bread and the wine, I give thanks that he withholds no good thing from us.
Not a thing.
Pine Tree Dr.
I could hear it
our shoes making a shoddy moon
on the fifteenth floor looking out over the city.
I can always hear the other
the sound of killing
shooting, the ringing of it
the sound of racism
silence, the subtlety of it
the sound of oppression
cash registers, the shininess of it
the sound of isolation
weeping, the breath-stealing nature of it
I can always hear the paranoia in the shadows of the other
I can always hear the anger in the panicky crisis
I can always hear the hopelessness in the news banner
flashing across the bottom of the screen
moon-shaped shoes filled with
women and men now family and friend
the best and true of both
standing up and holding hands in prayer
as if holding hands kept us from blowing down
or blowing apart
or blowing away
thy kingdom come
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven
thy kingdom come
to the ringing
to the subtlety
to the shininess
to the breath-stealing
and make things whole
And it was in that moment
over and above and beyond and inside and all around
I could hear the faint sound of something
a symphony of some kind
a little more melodious
a little more beautiful
a little more free
I could hear a faint sound of something
–a symphony of some kind–
and it sounded like hope.
A friend of mine who is currently working on his Social Work degree asked to interview me as a clinician and community advocate who work with a population wrestling with substance use and abuse for a course assignment he is working on. After being forced to pause during the business of work and reflect on his questions, I realized how valuable the exercise had been to me. I’ve decided to share it here, and invite your own comments for those of you working or living in the field. And to all my clients and colleagues in the work, this is a small testimony of your importance to my own development as a human being.
I feel like it chose me. Apparently, as a child when I was told I couldn’t help mom or dad do something, I would tell them “If helpers can’t help, they die.” While a little melodramatic even at that age, my heart is with being there when people discover something is possible they thought had already been ruled out or even something they had never thought of before. People dealing with substance abuse and addiction who are seeking recovery are the most honest, holy people I’ve ever met. I learn from them, and they learn (some of them) that there is more available for their lives than they could ever have imagined.
I often feel, whether in small group IOP (Intensive Outpatient) therapy groups, one on one in outpatient counseling, or in AA / NA group-led self-help meetings, that people coming together, admitting their crap and the crap it has caused, refusing to respond to others in judgment because they are aware of their own need for support and peace, and honestly believing that every day is the beginning of another possibility. These are all strengths. That’s what makes A&D work a holy exercise; it puts the pretense that actual church services can often be to shame. Some of the challenges include, obviously, the incredible chemical, relational, emotional and neurological effects and consequences of addition, and the ways these affect people’s relationships with all the systems they will need to move into recovery.