Christina Kukuk | Writer, Preacher, Spiritual R&D

finding Life in the thick places

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On March 15

Barbie on March 15

Barbie on March 15

On March 15, in Cleveland,

we celebrate 35 degrees and dry sidewalks

by playing outside all morning, and again in the afternoon.

We bike the block in mittens and fleece,

and with numb fingers push dried peas

into peat pots filled and dampened on the stoop.

The former snow bank, now melted, exposes

pink-dressed Barbie

headless

arms wide as she dives

into what will soon be green

(but isn’t yet)

And we know just how she feels.

Sweet June

Got word today that I’ve been given a little help to get to the amazing Glen Workshop East in June. Hungry and thirsty for just that kind of refreshment. Here’s hoping all the rest of the arrangements fall in place.

I once tagged along for Italian in Grand Rapids with Scott Cairns, Brian Volck, Denise Harlan, and Debbie Blue. If that group is any indication, Glen East will be excellent.

AWP 2014: Full Disclosure: How to Spill Your Guts Without Making a Mess

This I want to remember: “…your story is not the most important story out there, and that’s not why you’re telling it. Instead, ‘You’re writing your story to bridge to everyone else.'”

Kneeling on the Sidewalk

Sharing blessings on the sidewalk is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever done. And it has been too long. Wednesday perhaps?

Kissing Winter Goodbye

Winter Blue Sky

Winter Blue Sky

See that Blue Sky?

Someone was talking to my 3-year-old the other day about summer, reminding him that days would come when he could go outside without a coat. In shorts. And a t-shirt. The three-year-old just started laughing. Maniacally. Like that was crazy talk. The funniest thing he’d heard all day.

It’s been that kind of winter in Northeast Ohio.

But the hours of light are lengthening. The “day” is getting longer. And even though it’s raining ice pellets outside as I write, Spring will come. It makes sense that in the Northern Hemisphere, the lengthening hours of light coincide with a spiritual season that builds toward Easter (“Lent” — related to “lengthen”), when Christians shout and sing that death does not get the last word, the life rises again, that a new day dawns even after the darkest night. It sounds like crazy talk. But we’ve seen it happen.

So I’ve been gearing up to prepare for Easter in an Embody sort of way. I’ll share more on Lent and Easter themes next week. For now, keep looking at that blue sky. And if it helps to laugh like you’ve lost your mind, go for it. Spring’s gonna come.

Love is… Love

Clanging gongs and SpongeBob

Clanging gongs and SpongeBob

From a letter written by Paul to some Jesus-followers in Corinth (I Corinthians 13):

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

She was a successful young sorority sister and student government leader, the kind of undergraduate who arrived with a high GPA, scholarships, and glowing letters of reference. He was a skinny and quiet young man, looking more than a little lost and adrift in his thrift store clothes.

In an old church basement in Cleveland, these two young adults sat on metal folding chairs, making concerted efforts not to touch or look at one another, as they tried to explain themselves. [1]

This isn’t your typical Valentine’s Day story. But it is a story of love.

That Saturday morning, the young woman unacquainted with failure explained to a small circle of neighbors that she was trying to leave a party but did not want to leave the bottle of top-shelf vodka she’d also brought along. So it was an open bottle the police saw her toss into her boyfriend’s car when he arrived to spirit her away from the party. The young man described how he had fallen down a flight of cement stairs in the middle of the day. Wasted at the time, he actually could not remember the fall, but the scrapes and the bruises and the witnesses filled in the blanks. He admitted, a little under this breath, that he had a drinking problem.

Through a Restorative Justice Program these two admitted to their neighbors that they’d broken the law.  They traded a misdemeanor penalty and criminal record for an experience of real vulnerability. Each offender shared what happened:  the bad choices made, the personal demons who’d bested them. Then each community member spoke about how they are hurt and affected – like when they have to explain to their 8-year-old why there are all those bottles, or (worse) a whole college student passed out, on the lawn. Each had to speak and to listen. Each had to give and to take. Each had to honor and to respect.  Then together, the small circle of very human beings in that church basement worked out a plan to restore relationship. It was personal. It was vulnerable. It was awkward and tender and entirely appropriate all at the same time. It was Love. Not the serendipitous love story of two young people falling head over heels. Not that kind of love story. But it was love sparking across the space between people who were willing to risk knowing one another even at their worst and being embraced.

In February, love is everywhere. But it appears more often in its Ambience billboard variety than the church basement variety. If I’m going to write of love, why use this example of underage drinkers making their confession in a church basement? To quote one of the great philosophers of our time, Dave Barry: “If your boyfriend is a nice guy, but he’s mean to the waitress, he isn’t a nice guy.” In other words, love is love. Whether it’s the genuine love of a neighbor or the passionate love of the bedroom or the otherworldly love of God in prayer, Love – true Love – takes the same spiritual muscles. It is only a difference of the degree to which we know the other and are known. Love of neighbor – the love in action in that church basement – is not so far removed from our romantic love lives as we might think.

Love is… love is patient. Love is kind… We hear those words from I Corinthians at every other wedding it seems. More than once I’ve wondered aloud if that kind of love is even humanly possible. This world – and sometimes it seems our own hearts – are inhospitable to the love of I Corinthians, antagonistic, even. More than anything else, we seem to struggle to treat one another as whole people, to respect a lover or friend or even just a waitress as a cherished human just for being. Decades ago, the philosopher theologian Martin Buber thought and wrote a lot about relationships, about intimacy, really. I think it’d be fair to sum up his complicated German plays on words by saying: Our problem is, we turn people into “its.” “Every You in the world is doomed by its nature to become a thing or at least to enter into thinghood again and again,” Buber wrote.[2]

The Jesus followers who first heard Paul’s words did not have sexy lingerie and heart-shaped chocolates on their minds. It’s more likely they were suffering the consequences of treating one another as “its”. That’s why Paul writes to them of love. He’s been so affected by the dignity he has seen God give human beings in Jesus, he feels like he has been saved by love. He believes the quarrelsome Corinthians can be, too. What he describes in those words that are almost cliché at weddings is not human love, but divine love. God is, with us: patient, kind, not envious or boastful or rude… bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things… including the possibility that we human beings might live in love.

What I saw years ago in that church basement was a love that is patient and kind, not boastful, not delighting in falsehood, but rejoicing in the truth. What I saw was holy love. When romantic lovers or friends or neighbors or my own self and spouse fail miserably at loving, I pray for just a small measure of the holy love in action in that church basement. What love we would know if we could form little circles of two or three or four people who speak and listen, who confess and forgive, who encourage and respond, who respect and honor, who give and receive. “Relation is reciprocity,” Buber wrote.

When we, as lovers, practice that same kind of tender love: confessing (both our hurts and our offenses) and forgiving, speaking and listening, comforting and challenging, we see in the dim mirrors of our human relationships a reflection of the amazing love of God – a love that is stronger than death, a love that won’t yield, even to the grave.

*******

InCarne: Buy a package of the kind of Valentines kids exchange in school. (We especially like the ones with temporary tattoos.) Pick one. On the “To:” line, write the name of a person or place in your neighborhood or world in need of holy love. Find a way to get reciprocal with that person/place. Stick the tattoo on your arm to remind yourself to do it.


[1] Some of the details of this community conference have been changed to protect confidentiality
[2] Martin Buber, I and Thou, p. 69.

A Psalm for Getting Laid Off (And a Blessing for a New Year)

We know job loss in Cleveland.

A story in today’s Plain Dealer grimly declares that we’re leading the nation, for the seventh month in a row, despite economic recovery. (Perhaps this is why researchers also found Ohio to be the sweariest state in the Union?)  The job loss numbers reminded me of a “Psalm for Getting Laid Off.”

As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’
By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain;
You hid your face; I was dismayed.
~Psalm 30

 The first time I got laid off, I ran to a bathroom to cry. I am quoted in a trade magazine sniveling something about, “but I really thought we were doing good work, producing something valuable.” (For the record, the image of me crying in the ladies room was exactly not how I wanted to debut before a national audience.) My cynical evaluation of the state of the publicly-traded market economy did not make the article.

I emptied my desk into a small box the final day and shoved it to the back of a closet at home. It had been my dream job. Landing it, I imagined God confirming my life’s value and calling. I was established. I had health insurance. I was even unionized. And I delighted in the work of my hands.

But when the most junior 10 percent of us got cut free, God seemed to hide her face. I was more than dismayed. I got clinically depressed. And that box of horrors remained untouched in the closet for four years, until my sympathetic spouse donned psychological rubber gloves to dispose of the rolodex and notebooks and business cards so we could relocate states away for a new career.

Did I really let that box represent me and the corporation stand for God, so little valuing me?

I did, in some subconscious way. Perhaps you have, too. We can’t help it. We’re Ah-MUHR-i-kuns. It’s just eh-kah-NAH-micks. (My 11th grade econ teacher punctuated those words by smacking the chalkboard, and I can now pronounce them no other way.) A decade after marrying into the family, I realized I did not know what my Canadian relatives did for a living. I had to ask. Then I spent a whole day marveling at their courage to never need mention it.

Surely we could learn this little thing from our Northern neighbors: We are not our work. Prosperity is no measure of God’s favor. Or our value.

I like to think the singer of Psalm 30 learned this. She starts off “established.” But God’s smiling face seems to disappear, and she becomes dismayed, crying out to God. (I imagine her bawling in the ladies room.) Then something happens – it never says what – to turn that sobbing to some kind of loud joy. I doubt  the corporate cost-cutters in her life merely saw the error of their ways. More likely: The singer found a new way to measure her value in the world.

More than a decade after that first layoff, while nursing new wounds from more meaningful work lost, I hear a writer with Vitae (the online arm of The Chronicle of Higher Education) suggest that a “professional identity” is a now a luxury few can afford.

Accepting that could be a good  and bitter thing.

Good, meaningful work meets basic human needs. Maslow recognized that long ago.  But if I could give a blessing to the many, many people I know in this new year struggling to disentangle feelings of personal value and self-worth from an unsatisfying or lost job, it would be this: God is not your CEO. May you find your value and your worth more in your being and less in in your working. 

“East was as far as you could get from God…” And more good stuff on the story about those stargazers by one of my favorite priests: The Eve of the Epiphany.

Body Count: Mary Had a Baby

It’s just baby toes. I look at the blurry black and white photograph of an infant’s feet and guess that I’m supposed to feel warm and fuzzy. At the sight of those little piggies, I am expected to slip into baby talk, gushing over chubby toesie wosies. This time of year, dimpled babies kill Christmas with cuteness. I’m supposed to caption this photo. But I check myself: What do I really feel?

Progressive Christian folks avoid focusing overmuch on the baby. It’s not just kind consideration for the bereaved parents or unwilling childless. You could make a solid case that Christmas is more about the end of the world (as we know it) than it is about the little squirt who soiled those swaddling clothes. The sparse infancy stories in our Bibles make a pretty pathetic baby album for Jesus.

Then there are mothers like me who look at that photo of baby feet and think not, “How shall we receive the Christ child this year?” but rather, “Have they digitally altered that kid’s toenails, or are my infants the only ones who come out with gnarly talons on their feet?” Whoever wrote that “little lord Jesus, no crying he makes” a parent was not. Babies are loud. And they stink. For these reasons and more, I usually don’t focus much on the baby either.

Except this year. This year, singing “Mary Had a Baby” feels like a rallying cry.

This year, three transgender women were murdered in Cleveland. The day the first story broke, I cried and couldn’t concentrate. Somebody’s baby. Some precious body, mangled again in the daily paper’s telling of it. On Sunday, people gathered to grieve and speak out for two more women murdered. For those bodies I will sing, “Mary had a baby…”

I sing this year not to debate the scientific improbability or the creedal value of a virgin birth. (I know why that bit makes a good story.) And I don’t need other people to believe in the incarnation (the technical term for God becoming human). I don’t even need the members of Embody to believe it. But I will tell you it’s what keeps me following Jesus: There was a man with a body in whom other people met God. The wholly divine became a child of ordinary human beings so that ordinary human beings might become children of God. Mary had a baby so that here, in my body, I can be holy now — not just after I’m rid of it.

The body matters. Immanuel’s surely messy, biological birth made CeCe’s and Betty’s and Brittany’s flesh sacred long before it was bruised and cut. I’ll sing this year to insist that and to pray: That many more of us would live as the children of God we were born to be – and count every body as holy.

Every body counts: The baby bodies with kissable toes and stinky heads. The elder bodies we must wipe clean. The saggy bodies with rolls and dimples. The bony bodies with sharp angles and thin skin. The bodies that emerged from a womb with parts that don’t match who their owners know themselves to be.

Mary had a baby. And every body counts.

Second Helpings

Molech’s Second Helping/Vigil on the National Mall
April 11, 2013

Dusty crosses, crescents, stars mark graves imagined,
not scattered across the country as they are
but all in one place
under one sun
burning down this April day on the heads of the makers of the laws of this
One nation under god
(which god?)
on whose altar we keep sacrificing our sons and daughters
while the holy women and the holy men
bury them
their sons and daughters
our daughters and sons

With tears and prayers
prophets collapse into one another
bereft
while the spider with its camera legs
and microphone arms scuttles to drop down, surround, the spectacle
so that we may feed ourselves again
(one nation under guns)
on our young
having bellied up to the buffet of past months, but sated not,
we come back for second helpings

Copyright ©2013 Christina G. Kukuk

 

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