Sunday, April 21, 2019

Just lil ole me...

I heard His voice for the first time when I was out of my mind on acid, tripping hard, as the parlance went back then: I sat at the window of my city apartment and watched a million undulating rainbow lattices ornament the street below, blooming and collapsing and overlaying each other in a sumptuous visual feast. But even this had an emptiness at its core and despite my desperate hunger for Something Real that led me to assail my brain with chemicals, I was lonely, lost, love-starved and hopeless.

His voice cut through the black mire like a piercing ray of light in the dark: You don’t have to keep doing this to yourself, He said. And here, finally, was not Something Real but Someone Real: the voice I had longed for, a voice which knew the depths of my darkness and was totally unafraid because He’d seen it all before, here was someone who was not lost but utterly found and was foundness itself, was home itself. My tears were tears of relief and grief and regret and joy, all woven together in one polyphonic deluge. I was found. I was known. It was Love Himself.

I wish I could say I was devoted to Jesus Christ from that moment forward, but my path to Him was still winding and forked with dead-end tangents as I continued to chase flittering holograms that promised satiation even as they siphoned my soul, though less and less because I was haunted by that Voice, by the one promise that didn’t ring hollow. And finally I surrendered, sitting and sobbing in the second pew from the back in a church my husband had practically dragged me to, eight months pregnant and finally willing to abandon my idols: both the tangible ones in my Hindu goddess statuettes and intangible in my pride, my delusionally high appraisal of my own intellect, my neurotic white-knuckle hold on the illusion of control.

I was tentative and slow to trust. I still am, sometimes. But I am fully convinced that He himself is our peace (Ephesians 2:14), and in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (every single last one!) as Colossians 2:3 tells us, as well as all the mysteries and depths of beauty I was searching for all those years I tangled up my mind and sieved my soul with psychedelics.

I am passionate about limning out in words and stories and images how Jesus loves us in the here and now, this beautiful and sometimes terrible place between the kingdom come and the kingdom not-yet-here. Words help me understand more fully what His presence looks, tastes and feels like; how His grace pervades our lives and sustains us and carries us. Because of Jesus, hope is my default and defiant posture.

But it’s not all misty-eyed gravitas, Psalmic agony-ecstasy bipolarity and waxing cosmological around here… just mostly. My husband of 11 years, Steven, tempers my tendency to take myself waaaaay too seriously by doing things like straight-facedly quoting Metallica lyrics when I’m trying to have a super deep conversation. I loved his long hair; he hated it sticking out from the sides of his hardhat while he climbed wind turbines. His solution was, naturally, a mullet. I believe in naked vulnerability to a degree which occasionally chafes him (are you talking to people about my balls AGAIN? Is a question he’s asked more than once when I've written about trying to conceive after his vasectomy reversal) and love big words to a degree that often chafes him (What does ‘apoplectic’ mean? He asks. Really angry, I reply. Then why the heck didn’t you just use ‘really angry’?! He cries). 

I have chicken problems, namely, I cannot stop myself from buying them and am ever searching for more exotic and in some cases unseemly breeds. I love books, especially big thick ones which promise a grand immersive adventure and which, only if absolutely necessary, could be used to soundly clock someone. I feel safest in a library, ensconced by rows upon rows of the things. There is nothing quite like the rich synesthesiatic bouquet of New Book or Old Book or even Library Book. Aside from Jesus and marriage, motherhood is the sweetest thing that’s ever happened to me and I love homeschooling my children, Israel and Arrow.

My favorite words, in no particular order, are: glissando, bougainvillea, frisson, and luxuriate. I love Bob Dylan and weird folk or amateur art and grapes and cilantro and kombucha and broken people thirsty for Jesus. My always-prayer is that my work is beautiful and true because it distills some droplet of The Truth, the living water, Jesus Christ. I would love to hear from you! 

Thursday, February 7, 2019


“I think Jesus was a woman. That’s what I believe.”

She says it plainly, boldly, her eyes smoldering with the heady drug of open defiance. I’m unfazed, though. She is so fresh, so pretty, waffling on the threshold between girlhood and adolescence. And she’s so different from a year ago. Physically, yes, she’s taller, with slightly oily cheeks and a pimple or two betraying sebaceous glands that are kicking into high gear. But she’s undergone that reckoning of puberty, The Change: the bubbly, childish innocence has morphed into brooding, sulky suspicion.

“Interesting theory,” I say. We’re clustered around an inadequate table in child-sized chairs, me and these seven tween girls, studying the Bible, supposedly. “Where did you hear that?” I ask.

“Dogma,” she says, citing the 1999 Kevin Smith movie. And now I am fazed. I eye her askance and frown a little but catch myself, not wanting to seem scolding or prudishly disapproving.

“Yeah… I’ve seen that movie, too,” I reply. “Not the most appropriate movie for a 12-year-old.”

She shrugs. “I’m thirteen,” she responds, as though in one year she’s definitively crossed into a realm where watching such things is, in fact, entirely appropriate, or at least not worth questioning.

I ask another girl to read the opening of the Gospel of John while the others whisper and giggle, paying attention for a brief moment only if I call them by name before they return to their commiserating. The room is warm and the air is close and at least one of these young women has not been properly informed on the necessity of wearing deodorant. I feel my frustration building as these magical words, in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind, drift listlessly about the room, looking for willing ears and finding none. So it seems.

“Who do you all think Jesus is?” I ask loudly and abruptly.

“He’s like this nice, sweet guy who just kind of floats around like he’s on a cloud,” one of them rhapsodizes half-mockingly, and it’s all I can do not to laugh.

“Well,” I hesitate, trying to keep a straight face. “He was definitely kind, and all about mercy and grace, but he could be pretty savage sometimes as well. Let’s read John chapter 8.” As I begin to flip to the page I hear her mutter, the one who apparently pictures Jesus as an innocuous and perpetually stoned pushover. The girl next to her giggles and as I look up they’re both looking at me and smirking. “Excuse me, what was that?” I’m amazed at the power of teenage mockery to make me simultaneously revert to a painfully self-conscious adolescent mindfeel and also summon the prim indignance of an austere school marm harassed by insolent children.

“Savage is, like, so outdated,” she sneers. “No one’s said that since, like, 2017!”

I sigh heavily and close my eyes, taking a moment to compose myself. I’m supposed to be showing these precious children the love of Christ, dang it! They’re supposed to be awestruck and dumbstruck by the kaleidoscopic prismatic profundity of John’s words, overtaken by the grace and beauty of the Light Himself. Yet they are not impressed, and they are especially not impressed by me. How can I make them believe Jesus is a real, dynamic, living presence, the one who changes everything, without whom Kevin Smith would not be able to make his stupid movies because Kevin Smith himself is HELD TOGETHER by Jesus?! How can I possibly achieve this when everything else beckons so persuasively, so seductively, and those very movies glitter with a patina of cool snark, and I get made fun of for using the word savage and am markedly uncool by contrast?! So much for speaking the language of the youth. I kind of want to go home and cry and then watch Dangerous Minds and regroup.

“Well, whatever,” I mutter, and begin to read the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. I pause after reading Jesus’ line about those who are without sin casting the first stone and look up. “Why do you think he said that?” I ask them.
She’s the first to answer, to my surprise, the Kevin Smith fan. “He means no one is perfect,” she replies. I nod encouragingly.

“Yes, exactly. The Pharisees were always high on moral superiority, thinking they’re better than everyone else. In another place Jesus tells the Pharisees ‘go and learn what this means – “ here I have to raise my voice to a pitch that is perilously close to yelling to get the other girls to quiet down, but she is still staring at me intently – “ ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ He was quoting – I don’t know, maybe Hosea? – but what do you suppose that means?”

She answers eagerly, her blue eyes bright, the brassy glint of rebellion gone for the moment: “It means he would rather forgive than sacrifice someone or have them hurt!”

Yes, I think, and I say it. “That’s what God is like.” And I realize He is there, even as the rest of our sad farce of a Bible study goes down the tubes amidst clamoring discussions of who is going to spend the night at whose house. I realize the Holy Spirit is swirling and soaring and diving and moving among us even now and always, with sacred legerdemain so deft and gentle and whispery that it is barely perceived but no less powerful than a thundering voice or a burning bush, and I don’t have to wrest and wrangle interest out of these girls, I don’t have to shake them silly while screaming “don’t you understand?!?!”, I can allow them to laugh uproariously at my interpretation of the Orange Justice and take it in stride when they shake their heads and tell me nobody whips OR nae-naes anymore. Do *I* even understand?! Do I have to? Or need I only trust? And is this being a fool for Christ? I can take it.

Why am I so quick to take a heavy burden upon my back? Why am I so loathe to trust him, to believe that he is working more prolifically than I could ever conceive beneath the veil of seen reality, weaving beautiful vignettes redolent of him, fresh as dew and older than time, recapitulations of THE Story which crescendoes even now toward a climax no eye has seen and no ear has heard? Do you hear it, though, the future-echoes, flittering toward us from the new heaven and the new earth? Do you see it, the intimations of the Really Real, the hint of new birth simmering and percolating just beneath the surface of all things? Do you feel it, the days when even the flowers seem to stand up and shout his grace and colors take on all their original shimmering Edenic intensity? Sometimes I have to squint and strain, I admit. But even despite all the death of the past year, and perhaps even more vividly so because of it, I know it is there.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Then and Now

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” - Matthew 6:22-23

Oh, how great it was back then. It yawned vastly like a bottomless cavern emanating with a miasma of decay, a death-bouquet of emptiness, nihilism and despair. My whole body was clotted with it and the idea of hope seemed a flickering wraith, a child’s thing, a quaint and flaccid make-believe trinket that could not stand in the onslaught of darkness. My eyes were more than unhealthy. They were putrid, rotten, veiled with hatred and fear. 

I looked nice then, sure. “Miss Ashley, why are you here? I wish I looked like you,” the curvaceous nurse said, with a broad smile, after handing me my daily medication in a tiny plastic cup and tapping over the old-fashioned scale to take my weight. “You be lookin’ like a model.” 

I felt contaminated in her presence. She seemed so clean, so sweet, so good. If only she knew. I may have looked nice, but I felt irredeemably ugly. I had used and exploited and devalued people and allowed myself to be used and exploited and devalued and ran from God, disavowing his very existence and hiding from him in terror in a garden that appeared, to my eyes, to be crawling with rot and sewage with hideous beasts lurking behind every shadow. The enemy stoked my fear and hopelessness to rattling crescendo and here I now stood, between the rock of death and the hard place of interminable despair. Words left me and there were only tears. So my parents checked me in to a psychiatric facility and here I dwelled, feeling a bizarre paradoxical mix of deep belonging among these seriously ill people and perspective that I wasn’t, perhaps, quite as damned as I’d feared.
My roommate was a slip of a woman, a sweet and unassuming alcoholic who neatly folded my clothes for me. There was a man who’d staged an epic standoff with police before surrendering to inpatient treatment. He was loud, brash and aggressive, a braggart who proclaimed in group therapy that he’d slept with over a thousand women and attempted to coach me like a drill sergeant during our rec basketball game, but who turned meek and warm when he introduced me to his petite wife during visitation. There was a young man, a boy really, who beat me at chess and said he’d been hospitalized for violent outbursts but who cried like a child when his mother and girlfriend came to visit. There was my best friend that week, a 20-something around my age with a droll sense of humor who had been on lithium for as long as he could remember for schizophrenia. And there was the near-silent, pale and wasted woman without a stomach who I sat with on a couch one evening who spoke softly of how the doctors couldn’t figure out how to get her body to absorb nutrients. I was sobered. 

Listen: I tried everything to fix myself. I sampled liberally from the vast smorgasbord of cures which clever and glittering marketing inflates to panaceas and came away only more hollowed out than before. Jesus is the only remedy I know of. What inexpressibly sweet relief to hear his voice beyond the noxious din of the world, telling me at first hard truths: yes, it was true, I was really, really messed up. Fatally flawed, even. I was headed down to death. But wrapped up in his hard truths, inextricable from them, was a brightly dawning undercurrent of hope, like a new movement within a suite, the movement which will change everything and swell to an exultant blaze of joyful triumph, was an unless. And that unless was everything. Unless you turn toward me and receive the free gift of everything you’ve ever truly desired. Unless you give your life to me so I can give you mine. Unless you come home. 

And eventually, that unless became not a mere unless, defined by its preceding truths, but instead an ecstatic, victorious, ever-blooming YES in Jesus, a riot of color and surprise and delight.

I used to think my story was embarrassing. But I am not ashamed of it any more, only because I am not ashamed of the gospel. I look back at my asylum week and my numerous mental breakdowns, and I see God weaving them in to the beautiful whole of how I falteringly came to him, a story full of backsliding and stops and starts and hesitations and pride and finally, a fear-filled leap. I’m still stunned to find myself with a place at his table with a sumptuous feast laid before me, my head anointed with oil and these wonderful vessels of the holy called friends sitting around me. And Jesus says that he and I are family!!!! What is this miracle of grace?!?!?! There aren’t enough exclamation points or exclamation point-question mark couplings in the wide punctuated world to express my astonishment. 

Friends, I was and am so unworthy. I was the sinner of sinners. I railed against God. I told people he didn’t exist. I sneered and scoffed and treated his people like trash and murdered them in my thoughts.  If there was and is hope for me, I am absolutely confident that there is hope for you. Praise him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can hope for or ask. His grace is there waiting for you. I promise. 

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dad's Eulogy

I thought I would open by sharing some of my dad’s classic sayings and expressions. They won’t be nearly as funny in my voice, but perhaps you can imagine him saying them. There was his own brand of nonsensical Spanglish – “calondo lahondo” and was always going on about “Portuguese rice”. “Easy!” he would exclaim, along with “cool it and rule it” and “get back”. About twenty percent of the time I called him he would answer “Joe’s Bar”. He frequently used “Bite me”, “GOOD NIGHT!” and “I give up”. He often employed a particular gesture I cannot replicate in church to express his dismay at something he felt was silly or trite. Some other favorites were “you’re a real piece of work” and “you make a better door than a window”. He was constantly saying “I’ll see you a week from Tuesday” which still continued to fool me sometimes even though I’d heard it all my life – occasionally I’d momentarily pause and ask “Wait, what are we doing next Tuesday?” One of his favorite pranks was also pretending he was being choked behind the wall -

One of Dad’s signature displays of affection was “The Limpy”. He and his brother were blessed with the ability to relax their forefingers while holding the rest of their fingers with their thumb and solidly thump you on the head with said waggling ring finger. Dad’s limpies went beyond a mere “love tap”, however, thanks to his massive jewelry. He wasn’t one to keep it subtle – his rings were massive chunks of metal with hard edges and straight lines, like brass knuckles envisioned by some brutalist architect. So limpies were always a little painful, but our skulls really developed well.

He was also very intentional about teaching us what he called the “classic defense” – if someone came at you to poke your eyes, you simply needed to raise your hand like this to thwart the attack. And if your assailant changed tactics and came at you sideways, you could invoke the “double classic defense” and foil them yet again. So if anyone wants to come at me and test my reflexes after the service, I assure you I will make my dad proud. He trained me well.

He delighted in teaching his grandchildren about the important things in life… actually, just the one important thing, namely, John Wayne. Dante and Angelo were exposed early on to the rapturous viewing excitement of John Wayne’s film oeuvre, a rite of passage with my dad that Lia and I had to endure as well. On the altar you can see one of my dad’s most prized possessions – the photo of when he and his brothers, George and Don, met The Duke himself in California. He also enjoyed teaching Israel and Arrow about the American flag – from a young age Arrow would emphatically point one out to me whenever she saw one and exclaim “that’s the American flag – Papa taught me about that!”

Toward the end of his life when he was less mobile, he loved playing card games such as Kings on the Corner with Dante and Angelo. I remember Dante being eerily and suspiciously lucky when it came to winning. The boys also loved riding in his canary yellow Humvee, though their mother and I were slightly less enchanted with our father’s ostentatious taste in vehicles when we were teenagers, but I came to appreciate and even embrace his distaste for the conventional in every area of his life (though I still got pretty nervous that he’d nick off a rearview mirror or two when he came to visit me when I lived in an apartment in midtown).

He logged many miles in both his Humvees exploring the American west with my brother Sean. Sean was unable to be here today, but most importantly, he spent Dad’s last few days with him, and was even here for the very end of Dad’s life because he missed his flight the night before – praise God! I asked for his permission to share the following post he wrote on Instagram, accompanied by a picture of him and Dad standing in front of a vast canyon somewhere in the West:
“I don’t post a lot of personal photos on this account but this week I lost my dad Glynn. Better known as GB. This shot is representative of our most precious times together. For many years we would meet up in the southwest and take a trip together exploring the western US. Many times with other family members such as my uncle Don. We would explore every back road we could find. We didn’t always agree on politics or religion but who cares. When we were exploring the open road we were one and the same. We miss you GB, until we meet again. Life is so short, do what you love and don’t waste your time. GB did it his way for sure.”

If you knew my dad at all, you knew of his deep love for animals. He was pretty much just one creature shy of an exotic animal farm, and would welcome to the Brown menagerie any animal he could get his hands on. We had horses, ponies, goats, sheep, chickens, rabbits, doves, peacocks, sundry pheasants, tusked pot-bellied pigs, a llama, and a cow at one point. I inherited his affinity and look for the freakiest chickens I can find in the hatchery catalog every year, though my husband drew the line at the “ Turken Naked-Neck” this year. But dad loved seeing photos of my chickens and holding them when he was still able to visit. Whenever I called to consult him about a chicken-related issue and my mom answered the phone, she would quickly call “Glynn, Ashley has a chicken problem!” and hand the phone to him.

His dog, Lucy (which, by the way, remains the best gift I’ve ever given – I got her on Craigslist while searching for a kennel for our dog and I came across an ad reading “Extra large kennel - $1 – must take the airedale that comes with it), passed away a year and a half ago, and he was physically unable to care for another. So, he coaxed squirrels onto the back porch with birdseed and crackers. He simply had to have a pet. While he was lying in the hospital, he asked Izzy and I to “feed his squirrels”. My mom said “oh, they have enough, don’t put any more out there!” But while she was busy I found his feed tin and went ahead and did it anyway and when I reported back to him that I fed his squirrels despite mom telling me not to, he said “good job Ash!”

His affection didn’t stop at domesticated animals – he gradually coaxed the raccoons on the back porch into grabbing bread slices from his hands. He made them feel so comfortable, in fact, that they decided to move into the walls. Many a relaxing night watching television in the family room was abruptly interrupted by the violent keening and snarling of raccoon brawls coming from the wall somewhere above where the television was mounted. But my dad, being my dad, refused to exterminate them. Instead, he set traps nightly and drove the raccoons out somewhere to release them into the “wild” – that is, someone else’s “wild” – the next day. For a while, my sister or I would accompany him on these catch and release ventures until Lia, in her brutally honest way, broke it to him that this was an exercise in futility considering the raccoon population near our house likely numbered in the hundreds if not thousands.

But that was how my dad was - hopelessly tender-hearted. I remember once when he had received a shipment of baby chicks and one was injured beyond hope of recovery – I don’t remember the details, but there was someone there that day helping us out, maybe a farmer buying one of his animals, but someone more inoculated to animal deaths – and he told dad to simply go out and hurl the chick against the wall to end its life. Dad told me to go inside and not watch, but I remember peeking out and seeing in his expression the pain it caused him to extinguish a life, even if it was “just” a chick and ultimately a merciful gesture. One of my favorite images of him is him surrounded by a motley flock of animals while standing in the middle of the corral, meting out pieces of bread. He was in his zone.

Being a designer and just, well, himself, Dad had a very pronounced aesthetic. Looking back, I can now appreciate how stunningly beautiful and unique the house I grew up in was – but at the time, it was just our house. He always approached and arranged and refined things with his totally singular artistic eye. But God help us if we wanted something which, for him, fell under the umbrella of "tacky”. I had a wonderful and privileged childhood, but there were things deemed “tacky” by my dad that seemed to us unbearable deprivations at the time. Lia and I couldn’t have a  slip-n-slide – tacky, plus it would ruin the grass. A giant trampoline? Unthinkable. A fake pink frosted Christmas tree? Sacrilege. I know with absolute confidence if I were to put plastic flowers on his grave he would come back to haunt me. I remember visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house on one or another of our trips. As he approached the front door, he practically clutched his chest in horror when he spied the astroturf the current owners had put down on the front porch. There are some things that are beyond tacky… and this was simply desecration.

My mom has told me all my life “you and your father are exactly alike”. My grandma, Cece, has always been very emphatic to this day that “you look just like him” – not always what I wanted to hear as a teenager and young woman. True, I didn’t always love the Humvee, or the political opinions, or the marginal legibility of his handwriting when he signed my book reports, but now, when I think of how much my dad is a part of who I am and how much he shaped me, I just feel proud. So very proud.

My dad was very proud of all of us – me, Lia and Sean as well as his beloved grandchildren – and would tell us so. But his very particular Glynn Brown aesthetic inhibited him from fully appreciating my artwork in particular. “The portrait is excellent, Ash, but can’t you just put a nice landscape or something behind it?” he would often ask me. My mom told me that recently while bemoaning my ‘strange’ art he said, “Nancy, I hope when you get to heaven you tell me Ashley quit making all that weird art.” Remains to be seen whether he’ll get his wish. Sorry, dad.
My dad claimed to dislike nicknames and insisted my mom choose a name for me that couldn’t be shortened, which I find terribly ironic seeing as he had a nickname for nearly everyone. I was Ash the Smash, Sean was Seanzo, Lia was Lia Lia, my grandma, Cece, was Cecyle the Seasick Serpent, my daughter Arrow was Arrow the Sparrow, my husband was Stevarino, and his grandson, Dante, was Danto. I remember him having nicknames for his employees and even his pets.

Accompanying him downtown to his office was always a special treat for us. Although they turned the Folgers building across the street into condos a few years ago, my memories of dad’s office are forever redolent with the aroma of coffee beans. Especially as I got older, his employees seemed super cool to me, being 20- and 30-somethings who were “hip” and “urban”. Dad was always joking around with them and giving the more “liberal” ones of the bunch trouble.

Speaking of… if you knew my dad at all, or even ever saw his vehicle, which was plastered with bumper stickers, you know he was somewhat opinionated about his political beliefs, to put it euphemistically. It didn’t take much for him to brand you “liberal” – even saying something seemingly reasonable such as “Well, Ronald Reagan wasn’t entirely without flaws” could relegate you to Jane Fonda territory in his mind. But as black and white as he could be about his politics, I see so many shades of grey and tones of mercy in his relationships. He was always giving people second and even third chances, forgiving seventy times seven, and seeking out reconciliation. That was his heart.

Even up to the end of his life, he was always cracking jokes and making people laugh. When the nurses came in to ask him how he was feeling, he responded, “about that way”. Once when he appeared to wake up from sleep disoriented, Sean asked him where he was. “Here,” he answered without missing a beat, and promptly fell back asleep.

Many of you know that my sister, Lia, passed away unexpectedly in October. Death has a way of pruning things, of decluttering, of purifying and distilling what is important. It has a way of bringing to stunning, crystalline clarity that sentiment Paul expresses in Romans: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressed through love.” As painful as Lia’s death was for our family, as shocking and traumatic and terrible as it was, I believe the gem buried deep within the sorrow was that it showed us all what counts: love.
Toward the end of his life, I can see how God was drawing my dad deeper into an understanding of grace, into a sense of wonderment at the love whose height, depth and width we can only begin to glimpse through the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. After he passed, I found a piece of notepaper tucked into his daily calendar– on Ronald Reagan stationery, naturally -  on which he’d copied down Galatians 2:16: “know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” I believe toward the end, Dad was truly walking into knowledge of his identity as God’s beloved child, and believing that nothing we can do or fail to do changes His love for us. It has only to be received, surrendered to and believed. A couple of nights before he passed, he told my mom "I think Jesus is accepting me". I believe by the very end, he knew, and his cry was not one of fear or ambivalence, but the childlike confidence of “Abba, Father!”

Toward the end I was playing the Johnny Cash version of “Just As I Am” for him on my phone. When it finished, he said “Ash, you know what song I really like lately? That one about “The Bible tells me so,”. Oh, I don't know that one, I said. I began searching for a song with that title on Spotify. I found one, a jaunty country tune, but after about ten seconds he said “no, no, that’s not it. It’s the one that says ‘Jesus loves me’”. And I just lost it. The song he was “really into” lately was the most basic, childlike, foundational Sunday School song everyone knows. So we gathered around – me, mom, Jana, Sean, Steven, Israel and Arrow – and together we sang “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.”

Watching my dad die was sad and hard and painful. But it was holy. Eternity was breaking in, and God was there. Really there. As I reflect on those precious final days and hours, I am reminded of two things that Jesus said: the first is that anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. And the second is that you don’t keep new wine in old wineskins. Dad was changing. God was changing him and preparing him. The old was passing away. Jesus was making new wine out of Dad, and the time had come for him to go.

I already feel his absence profoundly in my daily life. Especially since Lia died, I talked to him every day. I am troubled by the dwindling population of Brown family members with sufficient joint laxity to perform “the limpy”. Who’s going to tell me the secrets of growing thriving plants, such as talking to them in gentle tones and telling them you love them? Who’s going to troubleshoot my chicken problems? But I take heart in knowing that Dad was ready, and he knew into whose arms he was passing. He knew he would awake utterly safe and found in the embrace of the one who knit him together. And I know this is far from our story’s end. This is just him lovingly saying, for now… bite me. I give up. See you a week from Tuesday.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Do You Know How Much God Loves Me?!

Light of the World by William Holman Hunt

“I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word.”  - John 8:37

“If the cross is the place where the worst thing that could happen happened, it is also the place where the best thing that could happen happened. Ultimate hatred and ultimate love met on those two crosspieces of wood. Suffering and love were brought into harmony.” – Elisabeth Elliott

“Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is… do you, Mr. Jones?” – Bob Dylan

The past year has been characterized by Things I Never Saw Coming. Among them:
1. I got a cat. And I love the cat. I love it so much.
2. My sister died.

Yes, one of these things is not like the other. My sister, the only sibling I had excepting my significantly older half-brother, the only sibling I grew up with, suddenly, shockingly dead. And much of the first few months after her death felt like fumbling insensate through a desolate, labyrinthine maze of death. (I’ve never been known for my understatement. Just ask my mom. Or Steven. Or anyone I’ve known for more than ten minutes). Death is at once the cruel definitive blot of a period and the interminably gravid expectancy of an ellipsis. So done, but so undone. So abrupt, but so resonant. Suddenly, death made its shocking entrance into my life as a reality – not something that happens out there, but which has happened in here, to someone I love, to someone with whom so much is left unfinished and unsaid. And its surreal denouement was riveted with aftershocks of guilt and questions and bafflement and haunted with flittering holographs of memories, imbued with even more meaning by her death.

But it was also saturated with an immediacy of God’s presence like I’ve never known before. So much receded into triviality. Life took on a dire urgency, a vividness that was both terrible and beautiful but so very real that I was almost afraid of it fading and life resuming its mundanity. The fragility of life was an immediate and inescapable truth instead of an abstract notion. At times that truth gave me a groundswell of fluttering panic and more often it felt like the freedom for which Christ set us free.

And I believe in truth it is. To live is Christ, to die is gain.  And sometimes, just sometimes, I could truthfully echo tearfully, and with delirious joy, the words of Paul: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”

There was room: tragedy blew it wide open.

I was listening to sermon recently about space, and how the “Selah”s in the psalms were about pausing and creating space for God, about how God in the beginning created space and how we, as creators in His image also create space in the form of imagination. And I was reminded of that verse, John 8:37, that had dropped like a lead weight in my gut recently: you have no room for my word. The Pharisees had no room for his word – his grace - because they loved the self-justification of the law, the moral superiority, the power. The dead onus of the law that they wielded like a bludgeon produced a nacreous blindness to the real presence of God. They crowded it out. They had no room. And I’m struck by how often I have no room, what with screens and words and vapid thought trails and the constant procession of sensorial gluttony I feast upon, with my presumptions about how God will act, with my legalism masquerading (quite unconvincingly, might I add) as righteousness, with my fear and lack of faith and scorekeeping and vain striving. Oh, wretched (wo)man that I am! I echo with Paul? Who will save me from this body of death?!

Sometimes I look at the cross and I have urgent doubting questions. How can I believe what God is asking me to believe, something nearly impossible to believe – that this man, who was also God himself, being crucified was the dividing point of history, the point at which the universe collapsed in upon itself as the one in whom all things hold together bore the sins of the whole world (when mine alone must weigh a good three tons) and moreover this person is the lover of my soul, the only one who can give me rest and the one in whom I must believe to be saved? What does any of this even mean?! And why did it have to happen this way? Did God really turn away just before Jesus cried “Eloi, Eloi, sabachthani?” And what does that mean? What does that say about God? What does it mean for God to abandon God? Did Jesus become un-God in that moment, simply flesh, sin itself, absent spirit? But no: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” (Psalm 22:24)

And yet: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) How does the holy embrace the unholy? How does God become sin? A whole new cascade of questions is born and, bolstered only by the hopelessly jerry-rigged and tenuous scaffolding of my own understanding, my anxious mind finds no rest. It finds no space. And I leave no room for the Word, for Jesus himself. 

Because as soon as I try to own the mystery, to parse it out and diagram it and inspect it with the tentacles of logic and reason and tidy cause and effect, to apply the perverse and sterile taxonomy of my human understanding, it dims and wanes and recedes. And I realize anew that I don’t own it, and I didn’t invent it, and I can’t box it. I can’t look directly at it, only luxuriate in it. The most high does not dwell in houses made by human hands. The revolution will not be televised.

One thing that delivers me from the desolation of complete unbelief is that if there is a God, he must be love, and being love he must have been and he must be willing to make himself known and comprehensible to his children. And so other times, I look at the cross, and just look. And look. And the theological ruminating, the tidy delineations, the explanations predicated on our deeply flawed notions of what constitutes justice, just turn ashen and fritter away. And then I think it’s the only thing, the cross, that in this world, in this drove of molten churning chaos, in this vale of voluminous lachrymosity, makes any sense at all. The place where, yes, the worst thing happened – but more, much more: the best thing happened.

What is this love that comes so low? This love that showers mercy where there should be nothing but the cold, hollow clack of a gavel and a sentence of condemnation? The love that stands so near, unashamed, while my accusers- including the one inside myself – shamble away in shame? The love that draws an orphan, utterly unmoored and lost in a chaotic cosmos of guilt and shame and condemnation, to the still center where she is known and known by, as totally loved as once totally shunned, as totally found as once totally lost. What is this love? It’s not normal. It’s not quantifiable, it’s not commodifiable, it’s not logical, it’s not reasonable. It’s preposterously unfair and inequitable. It is not to be understood, but rather luxuriated in, relished, delighted in, marveled at through tears and incredulous laughter. Where is the wise man? Where is the philosopher? Paul, the great lover of both Christ and rhetorical questions, asks.

He is alive and well, oh so clever, ever pondering but never arriving, so close to the truth yet so far away. I found him in the strain of perverse curiosity that led me to check out from the library and read “Recovery” by Russell Brand: I remember so well the new age fatigue, the yogic malaise, the endless register of rulesy self-analyses and self-inventories and doggedly futile self-saving techniques. Religion is religion is religion. “We don’t bother with soteriology, because it’s too damn complicated,” he says. And it was. The rules. The eight limbs. The four agreements. The 21-day cleanse. The 108 sun salutations. One more hit of acid. And yet the glittering stairway to heaven I thought I was fastidiously building revealed itself as a rancid mound of bilge in the judicious light of day. I must be doing it wrong, I thought, and the cycle began anew.

Part of the beauty that drew me to Christianity was its simplicity. Just Jesus. Him and him crucified, saving me from my self-salvation schemes and the dizzying rollercoaster of bloated pride when I was doing ‘well’ and gutter despair when I more often failed and “fell through a trap door in the bottom of my soul,” as Denis Johnson says. But I still muck up the simplicity by thinking I’m smarter than I am, by pretending to seek Him when I’m really just seeking more knowledge. And Jesus recedes farther and farther away and I’m stuck in an impotent morass of frustration and doubt.

Because what is the point of knowing about love if you don’t know Love? What is the point of doctrine or soteriology or eschatology or missiology or really any -ology if it doesn’t lead you deeper into love?

My friend Marcia likes to approach people and ask “Do you know how much God loves me?!” She always leans in close, her eyes wide and glittering with awe, looking perhaps slightly unhinged, a giggle always poised at the edge of her breath. She says this and other things with a giddy, girlishly conspiratorial air as though she is just discovering profound truths about God for the first time. Like someone suddenly and radically born again. Like a child. Like a person once blind who now sees. Perhaps, even, like an effete self-styled intellectual disarmed and dumbfounded by the power of the cross.

May we all become slightly unhinged by the wonder of His love. May the cynical refrain of “how can it be?” be turned on its head by the cross and become the tearfully baffled worshipful rhetoricity of “how can it be?!” May we have room for His word. Amen.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Love leaves all kinds of traces.

Note: I wrote this two months ago, but it just didn't seem like the right time to share it until now.

It’s been three weeks since the night I learned of my sister’s death through a text message. No one meant for it to happen that way, but that’s how it did.

“Lia’s gone,” it reads. “[Her roommate] came home and found her passed away on her bed. I’m so sorry.”

Gone, I think? She skipped town without telling anyone, then, I think. Not the first time. But ‘passed away’? What a odd choice of expression to use to talk about her leaving town.

Lia’s gone. Passed away. So sorry. My brain bandies these strange phrases about, hearing the terrible news but not receiving it. I’m so sorry. Why should he be ‘so sorry’ about her skipping town? I mean, it’s definitely not good, sure. Sorry, perhaps, but so sorry? So sorry. Passed away. Lia’s gone.

And then it hits. And I start shaking and crying and Steven runs in from where he’s rewiring the living room and he’s laced with ancient cobwebs and dusted with more ancient insulation from crawling through the attic and I scream “Lia’s dead, my sister’s dead.” And he doesn’t understand and I still don’t understand and the nightmare just keeps doing its ghastly unfurling from there.

She was always so private, so secretive, so protective of her world and her possessions. I worked for two months to borrow her Calvin Klein logo shirt when I was in the fifth grade. For two months, I begged, I pleaded, I cajoled, and was met with stonily persistent refusal until one day, some random, merciful whim utterly unrelated to my weeks of begging struck her and for one glorious school day, the shirt was mine. That was Lia: an impenetrable fortress from which fleeting moments of tenderness and acts of generosity emerged with no discernible pattern, all the more priceless and worthy of wonderment for their rarity. And though sometimes she came out, you were never really allowed in.

So now, here we are, left with fragments and pieces of that demolished fortress that I fool myself into thinking will bring peace if I can only piece them together. But they’re like one of those maddening grid puzzles. Move one square and another and you’re forced to move another even farther away from its apparent, logical position in the scheme of things in order to put that one there but then you can’t get the other back to its place without more movement and it never ends. And I’m standing like an obsessive, red-eyed detective in front of a corkboard feathered with this plumage of notes and clues and personalities and it’s an impossible labyrinth but I convince myself I’m on the precipice of discovery. But discovery of what? And for what purpose?

Maybe to know her at last. To finally know her, this person with whom I shared baths and snow days and endless My Little Pony vignettes. The one whom I trusted so much that when she told me there were prizes inside of buckeyes, I spent hours one afternoon trying to bust one open with a rock. The one to whom I submitted without question when she said it was time for a haircut and mom wouldn’t mind. The one with whom I decided to run away one afternoon when mom was being ‘mean’, with whom I tied handkerchiefs weighted with an hour’s supply of snacks to the end of sticks and set off, making it all the way to the bend in our gravel drive before our resolve dissolved and we trudged back.

But she was also the one I tiptoed around later, when the school calls and the real running away and then finally the arrests started, the police visits in the middle of the night. She was the one I avoided those months when she was homebound with a band around her ankle that intermittently pulsated with a red light, and she paced between her bedroom and what we still called our ‘playroom’, talking on the phone to friends I didn’t know or watching The Simpsons or Cops on the playroom TV, no matter how many times my parents asked her to turn it off. She was like a livid, volatile ganglion of pain and anger in those days, and honestly she scared me. All her life, she cut through pretense and deceit like a knife, and back then the knife was often unkind, though almost always truthful. So I avoided her, the prisoner in our home.

But that was a decade and a half ago. Time and two precious baby boys had changed her. A new era was dawning, I believed, in the months before she died. We are going to finally get close, I told myself. We’re going to be sisters like sisters are supposed to be. That was the narrative I was constructing, the one I was believing in, with the nights of volleyball and the jokey texts and especially that precious night in July when on the way home from volleyball she broke down and opened up to me in a way she hadn’t in years. Maybe ever. We even talked about God, a subject that had elicited nothing but apathy from her before. And she told me she loved me and I told her I loved her, too, and we hugged. So what if she was a little tipsy? I was exultant. My sister loved me. And I felt buoyant and hopeful after that night. Things were changing. We were changing. But now she’s gone, and we’re left with the pieces and fragments she’s not here to defend or explain.

This was never the way it was supposed to be and never the way I wanted it. And she would be horrified that her life is now laid out like a tableau for perusal. And me desperately trying to right things, to undo things, to resolve my guilt at not trying harder to be close to her, is helping nothing. I had to lodge my foot in my mouth after I fired off a nasty note to someone I believed had wronged her, only to be proven otherwise. “Stop digging up dirt,” my dad beseeched me. I balked and started to cry and nearly screamed “I’m not trying to dig up dirt, I’m trying to make things right, can’t you see that?!” and unceremoniously hung up on him.

It is real – this burning, this desperate wish to make things right, to untangle the knotted story, to enact a justice that isn’t mine to seek. To reconcile the paradoxes of who she was. Distant, undemonstrative – but she had every school picture of mine through my senior year in high school in a folder in her room. Stoic, reticent – yet with a mysterious tenderness that drove Arrow to cling to Lia like an adorable barnacle every time she was around her.

But I can’t make it right, and my efforts come to nothing and seem to do more damage in their profitless pursuit and I have to apologize to my dad for doing things like angrily hanging up on him when he’s dealing with the loss of his child.

I walked through the first week feeling at once detached – like I was enveloped by some kind of insulation that muffled the sensory world – and dreadfully awake, senses heightened. I lay awake in the middle of the night, staring but not seeing the walls, the ceiling. And now I can tell I’m entering the long haul, the valley trudge, of grief. And it’s hard to see beyond the gray tundra. It’s hard to see where resurrection could possibly bloom. And I’m still finding it hard to pray. But I wait, because there’s really no other option.

Early in the morning, hours after I found out she died, I was hurriedly packing and preparing to leave for Kansas City, and in a trance I ran to feed the chickens and went to lunge up on the porch to get their grain and missed and shredded the skin on the lower part of my shin. It’s still healing, and I’ve been thinking about that Leonard Cohen song “True Love Leaves No Traces” and how completely inane its titular claim is. True love leaves all kinds of traces; the truer the love, the more and deeper the traces, the wounds, the scars. But pain leaves traces, too. Pain like spending most of the first two years of your life in an orphanage. Pain like knowing your biological mother gave you up but never really knowing why, or whether she cared now or thought of you or was looking for you at all.

“Unwanted babies should never be born. People should just get abortions,” she flatly spat out once before a volleyball game this past winter. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but her declaration was bitter and definitive, and I think I can guess why.

Probably the most comforting thing that has been spoken over me since her death – something which, when spoken, made me weep tears of joy and sorrow and relief all running together in one symphonic deluge – was that God is meeting her in the place of her original wounding. He is meeting her there in the orphanage, undoing the bonds that were broken or never formed, weaving the synaptic connections that tell a child you’re safe, you’re loved, you’re cared for. She knows now she is not alone; she doesn’t have to claw and fight for survival and maintain hypervigilance over her emotions and heart. His perfect love is filling the voids where human love failed, making her heart a spacious place, a heart that can finally receive and receive fully the love for which and by which it was made. He is good. And he made and makes a way for us. But it still feels a little shallow when I say that, a little contrived; like I’m forcefully gluing down a neat little bow on what’s messy and unhealed. But I think of David and one of my favorite of his psalms, Psalm 13. I used to wonder if he went back and tacked on the final two verse months after he wrote the original few because it just sounded bad to leave them standing alone.

“How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?
3 Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
4 and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
5 But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
6 I will sing the LORD’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.”

But now I think he was just speaking truth to himself even when and where he didn’t feel it. And so will I. God is good. He made and makes and is making a way. And resurrection will spring up in the wastelands, even though I can’t see it yet.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The valley.

Lamentation of Christ, Andrea Mantegna, 1480.

“When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ 
Lord, when you favored me, you made my royal mountain stand firm; 
but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.”
– Psalm 30: 6-7

“My tears have been my food day and night, 
while people say to me all day long,
‘Where is your God?’
These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng.”
-Psalm 42: 3-4

“When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke?” – Bob Dylan, Desolation Row

Turns out I don’t control grief any more than I control God, which is exactly not at all.

Several years ago a dear friend who lost a child to leukemia told me that her mother had told her that grief was like a bowl of soup, and some people sip while others gulp. Although I love analogies and often find them helpful, this one planted itself in my memory and when my sister died suddenly and unexpectedly and the terrible time of its blooming arrived, I tried to wrangle it and formulize it and shunt the amorphous, vaporous yet black-hole-heavy beast of grief into its proportions. I’ll gulp that bowl, I told myself. I’ll prodigiously glut myself on it, hand myself over to it, let death reign in my body, and then I’ll be done and new life and hope and beauty and all good things will flower forth again. More than anything, things will make sense again.

And glut myself I did. In those stuporous first weeks I gulped down grief, or it gulped down me, and when dawn seemed to rise after the first month of catatonia I exhaled with relief. It’s mostly over, I told myself. Life can resume. And it did, for a time. And then it turned out to be merely an artificial dawn, a ruse of a spacious place, because the wave was retreating merely to gather its strength and pound the shore again and subsume any semblance of resurrection. 

The more I try to wrest new life from the wasteland, the more I try to wrangle the whole mess and piece together a mosaic from the shattered pieces of an invulnerable life, the more I try to wrangle a good story out of sorrow, the more I try to forcefully glue a neat little bow on the mire… the more my woeful inability to do so trumpets itself until it’s unavoidable. And I’m defeated. Is this where God wants me? 

There is nothing to do but wait for the miracle. There’s nothing to do but trudge joylessly through a valley of indeterminate length for an interminable amount of time. The glass-half-full non-Goth interpretation of this would be something like “God only gives you enough light to find the next step”. But I grow weary of covering things with platitudes, even true ones. Something in me begs to concede defeat, to have my full measure of wallowing. Is this faithlessness? Or is it surrender? I’m not sure anymore. 

The only thing I can wager is perhaps there is something valuable in sinking into the sorrow completely. Before the most meaningful Easter I ever had, I took Good Friday seriously. I didn’t flick it away as a minor temporary setback, a mere illusory obstacle. I didn’t quell it with promises or whitewash it with wishes. I dwelled in it and I let it dwell in me. I sat down in it. I fasted. I flirted with maybes – maybe death won. Maybe empire won. Maybe violence and power and all the coercive ways of the world are just the way it has to be. I imagined how the disciples felt as they scattered and struggled to hold on to Jesus’ prophecies and promises in the stark apparent reality of total defeat, or perhaps lost themselves entirely in doubt and fear. I imagined how Peter felt knowing that he had failed in the one way he had sworn he would never fail, the suffocating tide of shame that must have overcome him. It was too much to bear. Yes, I had heard the promises of Easter, but they were hollowed out by Good Friday, distant. Good Friday had leeched the power from their whispers, now just a faint, tuneless polyphony of the careless wind blowing around so many empty husks. Yeah, it got dark. 

But somewhere in that near-nihilistic silence, a defiant note sounded. No. NO. That’s not how the story ends. There is a power greater, a power that, unlike the world’s power, can’t be owned, can’t be tamed, and can’t be usurped. Its beauty is unmatched and in fact it is beauty itself, the wellspring from which all created beauty unfurls. I know my God. I know my God, and he is not a God of naughts. Or knots, for that matter. He is not a God of vain striving, of dead ends, of dead things at all. It all gets untangled in the end. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. (Luke 20:38). 

After Jesus, Leonard Cohen said it best:

God was ruler
Though his funeral lengthened
Though his mourners thickened
Magic never fled
Though his shrouds were hoisted
The naked God did live
Though his words were twisted
The naked magic thrived
Though his death was published
Round and round the world
The heart did not believe

The heart did not believe. Because the heart was a quixotic dimwit, unacquainted with the ways of the world and living in a saccharine Hallmark movie hologram? No. The heart did not believe because it wasn’t true. The story doesn’t end in pain, in death, in destruction. But it’s hard to see that now, when there is only death, dying, barrenness and pain visible. There aren’t even any pleasant distractions if I choose to fix my eyes on what is seen rather than what is unseen. I’m mad that Lia won’t be here when my dad, who is in stage 4 COPD, dies. Or when mom dies, for that matter. She won’t be here if we (ever) have another baby. She won’t be here for a whole litany of things. She’s just… gone. To me. And it hurts like hell. But to him all are alive. This can’t be the end of the story, and somehow the resurrection, the new life, in whatever stunning manifestations it comes, will be richer, ever more miraculous, ever more dazzling because of – not merely in spite of, cause God’s much better than that – the 2.5 day wait. 

There’s part of me that still resists. God, in his sovereign goodness, in his light in which there is no darkness at all, left two and a half days between death and resurrection. Why? Why would Good Friday be needed? Why does that have to be part of the story at all? Why does the valley have to be borne? I don’t know. And I’m not going to glue a bow or pull out my Bedazzler on this one. But I do know that when I started writing this I felt like a sewing machine who had just finished sewing a turd on a trash can lid - a sentiment I borrow from Richard Brautigan and one which is the best characterization of utter futility I’ve ever come across – and now I feel a little bit better. So I’ll be that sewing machine, if God will still be God. And he will. And so I wait. Sometimes because I can muster genuine hope, and sometimes just because there’s nothing else to do. Either way, he is faithful.