The same image has come unbidden to my mind every day this past week:
I am either in the basket of a hot air balloon or, more oddly, I AM the basket of a hot air balloon. My perspective is downward. I'm just a few feet off the ground, which is not too alarming, but the ropes that should tether me safely to it have come loose.
Am I floating away? Am I trying to land? I'm not sure, but I know instinctively that the ropes should not be untied. I need them to serve as tethers; I need them to keep me connected to the ground.
I spent the first part of this Friday night past in despondency. Nothing much had happened, but the weight of two weeks' worth of bad news piled upon bad news finally took its toll. Jeff Sessions had been revealed as the attorney general in the cabinet of the president-elect. All I knew about him was what I remembered from an article written a month before in which he, a United States senator, declared that a man grabbing a woman's genitals wasn't really sexual assault.
When my husband came home I was sitting at the table with my head in my hands.
"I feel dead inside." I declared, still staring at the table. "Of course what he said doesn't matter to the next president. How could that kind of statement matter to a man who actually assaulted women? How can we live in a world where such a man will be the next president? How is that is even possible"
Matt rubbed my shoulder and listened as I continued to speak, up to the point where I said, "Everything seems upside down to me. I feel lost." At that, he gave me some badly needed straight talk that helped pull me out of my gloom:
"Of course you feel lost. You've been stuck in the house all week being blasted with Donald Trump news on Facebook. You need to get out and connect with real people again."
And with that, he helped me make dinner and I started to come back to life.
I know what the first rope is, the first truth that will tether me and keep me grounded in a season that frequently sends me reeling: Call it community or something else, I--we--were created for real life lived with the real, flesh-and-blood people in our homes, our streets, with those we see at school and places of worship, in the grocery store and at the bank.
Reductivism is tempting and all too possible in online engagement: my family, friends and colleagues become the sum of their opinions and images.
I become the sum of my opinions and images.
Real life is less particular, less intense; opinions are but one sliver of the complex pie of shared existence. That which connects us--food, children, weather, holidays--that is the stuff that dominates our days and unites flesh-and-blood neighbours and friends with each other.
I can see myself again in the balloon, looking down, taking hold of a rope: flesh-and-blood, rooted existence in this space and this time. Here I am. Here are my people. Here is my place. And it is good.
I tie the rope to the ground.
I began reading Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland a few weeks ago. I found a mint-condition copy at a thrift store and bought it because my daughter loves the shorter version we have in the house, and because it seemed odd that I had never read the original before.
I'm finding it a serendipitous guidebook, as classic fiction often is for me. All that Alice knows must be altered, to make way for the wisdom necessary to navigate the strange Wonderland world. This is a world where a girl can fall hundreds or thousands of feet and not be harmed, where rabbits talk and worry about punctuality. It is precisely in the bizarre that Alice discovers her bravery, bravery she hopes to take with her back to her real home in the real world.
Speaking the truth has become an act of bravery for me. It doesn't feel like it initially, but it always does afterward. Speaking the truth about sexual assault. Speaking the truth about PTSD. Speaking the truth about God intersecting with my life (or me intersecting with His, as it's probably more accurate to say). Speaking about the first two subjects, necessary as it feels at the time, gets paid for afterwards by me and, to a degree, my family. There is a reason "spilling your guts" is so appropriate an idiom for the act.
But it does something else, and this relates to community, too. Throughout this past year I have had people who have experienced similar events--sexual assault, faith displacement, PTSD--reach out to me. Sometimes they share what they have experienced; sometimes it is as simple as, "you helped me put my story into words." That, far more than the act of writing, helps heal what is broken within me. When people reach out to me, I reach back--and when we join hands (metaphorically or physically) something inside whispers, "Yes. Good. This is the way it is supposed to be."
I am looking down again at the ground, one rope tied and the remaining three corners of the basket rocking dangerously in the wind. I throw down a second rope and someone--I cannot see who--tethers it to the ground for me.
I will keep choosing to speak the truth. I will not give into cowardice. I will not appease and please through silence and whimsy.
I will tell the truth. And so, the second rope is tied.
On Sunday morning, Matt woke up fighting a bit of the cold that my children have all passed around to each other.
"I don't want to go to church today," he said as he reached into the cupboard for his coffee mug.
"It's Christ the King Sunday!" I exclaimed. "I would DIE if I didn't go to church today."
"That's the difference between you and me," he responded flatly.
"No," I said. "It's a sign that I'm getting well."
This is the year of all years that I know, deep in my bones, that I need a calendar to live by beyond the political one of primaries and debates and elections. Hope pushes for involvement in those things, but it does not rise from them (nor should we expect it to).
I need to live by the calendar I have followed since I became an adult 19 years ago: the calendar that begins with the anticipation of the birth of Christ and ends with his crowning as King of the Universe. I need a reality rooted in God-become-human, in power prefaced and encased in humility. I desperately need the eternal Christ child in the manger to remind me the bluster and fear-mongering of kings (and president-elects) is not forever. I need to journey with the Holy Family to Egypt to remember that, whatever policies are enacted in the future, God knows what it is to be a refugee and calls us to welcome Him through welcoming others.
I need the once-and-always proclamation promise of Peace on Earth. And I need it, as the song goes, to begin in me.
This then, is the third rope: the ancient way of telling time through stories, good stories, of God and His people. This holding onto Good News that began with a good God creating a good world and that will, in His time, end with the full redemption and healing of that world. I don't demand that everyone sees it in exactly the same way, but for me, at this time, holding onto the Good News is what will keep me alive; it's what will keep me upright. The Good News is what will keep me from being utterly displaced by an era that is unfamiliar and yet all-too-familiar.
So I tie it, firmly, tightly, and let myself be drawn steadier and closer to the ground.
Once a month in my congregation (and every week or day in many others), we celebrate Eucharist (Thanksgiving); a meal instituted by Christ of bread and wine. In my faith tradition, we call this meal a means of grace; a way in which God feeds and nourishes not only our bodies but our spirits.
Eucharist, Communion, the Lord's Supper: these are all names for the same meal, based on the same Good story recorded in all four of the Books that describe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is my favourite part of worship, both as a leader and as an in-the-pew participant. The last part of the liturgy that I would say as the leader was this strange line: "Drink this cup, in remembrance that Christ's blood was shed for you, and be thankful."
Thankfulness and gratitude, are central to the Eucharist, and they are central to the life of faith. But gratitude is a grounding practice both for those at home in a faith and those who make their home outside of one. It forces us to account for the good in addition to the bad. Thankfulness is the recognition that there are gifts we have been given and enjoy--gifts of people or health or work or the beauty of the day.
As a culture, we North Americans have a whole day set aside for an annual practice of gratitude, of thanksgiving. But that isn't the only time available to practice it, nor is it best to save it for just once a year.
When I came home this morning, my four-year-old neighbour greeted me with laughing and pointing--not at me, but at the sun, which we in Vancouver see too rarely.
"The sun is out, the sun is out!" he exclaimed joyfully.
I'm sure I knew that subconsciously, but I hadn't factored it in with my long list of things to do. But here was my neighbour, pointing and calling me to look. So I did. I set my bag of groceries down on the stairs and turned to look with him at the face of the sun. It was covered by white clouds, but the light was streaming through and touching both of us as we looked.
These things, gratitude and thanksgiving, will be my fourth rope, tying me not only to the ground but to God (Whom Tillich wisely titled "The Ground of Being.") I know gratitude can happen outside of God, but for me it happens now to Him, in concert with Him and the creation in which He has set me and those I love. I lost my ability to practice God-directed gratitude when I lost my ability to read the Scriptures. But it has come back, and I no longer have to limit my thoughts to the good things that happen. I can be thankful for them. With a smidge of panic (as comes whenever I consciously connect things to religious obligation). But I can be grateful. Thank God.
I am looking down again, in the balloon. The wind is gentle, barely blowing. I reach down and easily and firmly tie the fourth and final rope to the ground. Gratitude. Thanksgiving.
Still in the balloon. Still looking downwards.
I am aware that, just outside my field of vision, nothing has changed. What is uncertain remains uncertain. What is terrifying remains terrifying.
But if and when I look beyond me at a world that is good but breaking, a world that even now breaks hearts and bodies and sends nations into disarray--I will look with eyes open and with the strength and stability of the four things that anchor me in place: the flesh-and-blood people in my life; the truth I will continue to speak; the Stories that I know and shape my life around; and gratitude for the good that I know will arise.
It is enough.
It will be well.
A blessing for you, and for me:
May we find our footholds in what is good, and right and true
That we may not fear
Or grow over-weary,
But rather be glad,
And even, on occasion, rejoice.