Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Great Need


Of a great need
We are all holding hands
And climbing.
Not loving is letting go.
The terrain around here
Far too

- Hafiz

For school we are all reading the poetry of Hafiz in his great work, The Gift, as a
spiritual practice as well as a way of more deeply exploring metaphor and symbolism.  Last year we spent the entire year working through the Tao Te Ching, and it was an extraordinarily powerful experience for us all.  Several of us felt we gained a new insight into the Spirit and God's very presence in our lives.  I know many Christians eschew the practice of reading other sacred writings, but we enjoy doing so and we see how God can be found throughout the world's great spiritual texts, and I find my relationship with God deepens as I view the spirit through the lens of others.

The poetry of Hafiz is, dare I say, one of the sweetest invitations to be fully present to God that I have ever read.  In page upon page we find the very nature of a God we can't ever truly pin done revealed to us.  I was struck though, quite deeply, by this particular poem we read today which I shared above.

Our former Pastor offered a theological nugget that will stick with me always, and that is that sin is, at its core, a failure in love.  The imagery of this poem above speaks to this boldly, as we can imagine a group of people struggling through life, facing the challenges and heartbreaks of a life lived engaged in the world, and yet being able to continue on because they are tightly gripping the hands of those who pull them forward when they simply can't take another step.

Oh, how we have been blessed to have hands reaching out to us throughout our lives!  

A couple of Sundays ago, I made a bit of a fool of myself as I rose to thank our new church congregation for embracing our family so fully.  It was the year anniversary of our first time attending, and it was my heart's desire to share with them what their welcome and openness had meant to us.  Within moments, tears started to fall, and I wished that perhaps I had kept sitting in silence.  We arrived at the church doors last January not knowing if we would ever find what we were seeking, but understanding keenly that what we had was no longer a fit for us.  Sometimes, that just happens in life; there is no blow up, there is no anger, there is just a yearning for something different because you have changed.  Sometimes we are meant to be in a certain place for a season, rather than a lifetime...whether we like it or not.  We didn't like it, but we knew it to be true for us.

So there I stood, hardly able to speak, choking out words that may or may not have made any sense at all.  All I could hope was that the sentiments were understood, that our appreciation for all they had offered us, both individually and collectively, would be something they could grab hold of even if haltingly offered.

Walking back to my pew, a new friend stood up and with tears in her eyes grabbed me and held me close...and didn't let go.  Whether due to my need or hers, it matters not.  There was a recognition in that vulnerable moment of mine that we all need one another, and we need to hang on tightly.

Our family has learned this in the trenches, as emotional missiles have flown overhead, sometimes exploding right in our foxhole.  We grab hold of one another, we duck for cover, using our own bodies to protect each other from the sting of shrapnel and emotional fallout that our previous lives created. We hold hands desperately, tightly, sweaty palms gripping sweaty palms until the terror passes, quiet descends, and we look one another straight in the eye and say, "We made it through another one!"  The grip grows ever tighter with each subsequent unexpected fusillade.  Though fewer and farther between, the war still rages from time to time against the barrage of emotions that arise from lives previously lived outside this family, from neglect, from being as alone in the world as one can ever be.  

We are stronger for it, without question, but we need more hands to hold.  We are not done growing...oh, I doubt we ever will be, for we are Team LaJoy and growth and exploration are our middle name!  Sometimes though, we become weary from exhaustion.  Our laughter and great joy is genuine, but it comes at quite a cost as well.

Being vulnerable on a daily basis is hard, hard work, and doing it alone is impossible. As Hafiz, in his great wisdom, says above, "The terrain is far too dangerous for that."  We need to hold on to one another's hands with a mighty force, and never let go.

We all need one another.  As each LaJoy reaches outside our family in numerous ways, each of us unique in our approach and interaction with the world around us, we do know one thing for sure...we must not let go, we must reach for others who need help for their own climb, for the ascent alone can feel treacherous and
impossible.  We have grabbed hold of outstretched hands straining to help us many times, but we must also look behind us and gaze downhill to see the next person who needs an outstretched hand, grab hold of it, and pull them toward us.

There is a Great Need, indeed, and that need is active, participatory love.  We can't stand on the sidelines and cheer passively.  We can't just talk about it, we need to "do love".  The terrain is far too dangerous for ANY of us to let go of one another.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The Great Documentary Adventure Becomes Much More

Sitting at my friend’s kitchen table on a frigid Tuesday morning, I am trying to find the words to put the past couple of days into perspective.  A week ago, Joshua and I left a relatively balmy 54 degrees in Western Colorado to head east on what we are dubbing his Great Documentary Adventure.  Having just turned 15, Josh is straddling that vast gulf between boyhood and manhood, as he looks and sounds more adult with each passing day.  You would have to look quite hard to find a more mature, responsible, kind young man and I had been keeping my eyes open for the opportunity to challenge him, and perhaps have some special one on one time with him as I have managed to have with each of the others, albeit often it has been for medical issues.

He is taking a film making class this year as his elective, and we were recently talking about the fact that he needed a “real” subject to sink his teeth into, not just a phony one made up for an assignment. We were brainstorming on a long car drive together, just throwing out ideas but not really hitting on anything that felt “meaty” enough When I casually said, “You know what would be a real story to tell?  Candi’s church and the tornado, and how it has impacted her congregation.”  Josh’s head whipped around to stare at me, and he said, “Oh man, that would be an awesome story!  There is so much there to tell!  But, it is too far away...” and his voice drifted off.

I looked at him, and in usual LaJoy style simply said, “So what?  We have free miles and a place to stay...what do you think?  Why NOT think big?  I’m game if you are!”  The twinkle in his eye told me something and upon arriving home I immediately approached Dominick with the idea, who was all for it.  I explained to him that Josh really wasn’t close to being ready, that the “finished product” would certainly be the “rookiest” one could imagine, but that I felt Josh’s giftedness was screaming out to be tested on something extraordinarily difficult all on his own for the first time, and to know we felt he could do it.  Yes, he has only had 3 months of a course.  No, he really has no clue at all what he is taking on (Hahaha...better not to know, right?).  But the truth is, sometimes you just have to leap and my gut has been telling me for awhile that Josh needed something all his own, something to point to later to say, “See?  I did a really hard thing, and I succeeded, I can do many more hard things because I know I did it once.”

So, calls were made, Candi (who is the pastor of this church) discussed it with her congregation who were all for it, and flights were immediately booked!  What I didn’t realize when this idea first popped for us, was that we were not traveling for a school project.  Instead, we were taking a pilgrimage...a far larger step toward adulthood and an encounter with God in ways I couldn’t have ever anticipated.
Ready to head to the airport

This project is not as much about filmmaking as it is about gaining other skills.  In order to pull this all together, Josh took a literal online “Crash Course in Documentary Filmmaking” over 7 days, in addition to his other coursework.  He then had to do the following:  Carefully shop for needed equipment and find the very lowest cost items that still met the minimum needs for the project, plan shots, create interview lists and a long list of possible questions for those interviews.  He had to bring in skills practiced in his creative writing course this year and consider story arc, major dramatic questions, narration, what to include and what moves the story along, as well as creating a main theme.  There are interpersonal skills to practice including interviewing, dealing with adults of all ages, working on EQ skills we have taught throughout his school career with being aware of where another’s heart is and meeting them where they are at as he interviews.  From a business perspective there are costs to consider, meeting his “customer’s” needs (his customer is the church, we are pretending they contracted with him to tell their story), staying on schedule, and much more.  The technical aspects of filmmaking are being tackled for the very first time as he considers lenses to use, mic placement, shot angle, how to keep his viewer engaged and understanding his story, etc.  Then there will be the post-production work of editing hours and hours of footage, adding in accompanying music, etc.  Of course, he knew none of that at the moment :-). Yes, we are a little nuts!

But you know what?  I believe in him.  I know he can do Big Things, and now, he knows we trust in that because we invested time and resources into this.

After having to leave a day early as we scrambled to beat a storm moving toward the East Coast, we spent the first couple of days in conversation with Candi doing deeper planning, as more of the story of this tiny congregation of about 25 was shared...how this 250 year old church was actually dealing with building issues for the fourth time with this tornado, how it had only been 3 years since they underwent a half million dollar renovation due to black mold and had met in the local school library for three long years, only to be hit by this freak tornado that struck in February of last year.  The fact that so many members are in their 80’s and have been associated with the church for most of their lives also is an important piece of this story, as is the fact that many New England congregations are saddled with buildings designed for congregations far larger than currently worship there, and many are closing their doors because they simply can’t make it any longer.  Josh’s self-selected theme is “Is the church the building, or its people?”, and it is a good one to be explored.

Having planned as much as possible with precisely 3 months of classes under his belt (We really are nuts, aren’t we?) off we went!  Day one was Sunday worship in the local elementary school library, back where they were three years ago.  Josh set up and filmed from a couple of angles, singing hymns as he carried his tripod around.  It was clear he was a bit uncertain as he worked, learning how best to set up equipment, how to be unobtrusive and yet still get the footage he knew he would need.  His usual quiet confidence was not quite as evident, and he had his first “real” interview with an adult he had never really spoken to right after the service.  He had interviewed Candi’s son and daughter the day before, testing the waters, learning how to set up, etc. but this was “for real” and he was a little nervous.  He also interviewed two younger children in the congregation that morning as well.

And things became really “real” when this first adult struggled to keep tears at bay as she shared about her beloved church.  It would have been an uncomfortable situation for any teen boy to work with, but Josh was fine and knew that also meant from the very beginning he would have footage that might touch others.

From there, we moved on to the church itself, barricaded behind chain link gates.  We had to dig our way through a couple of feet of snow just to get into the building, all three of us traipsing around in the -15 degree weather. The beautiful sunlit afternoon was perfect for shooting, and we knew we might not get another sunny day to film in and waiting for a warmer day wasn’t a good option, so we pressed on.  We scoped out the building and then Josh broke out his equipment with numb hands, gloveless, and began to film.  It was there that I began to see a hint of gift, as he worked and was able to “see” shots that would work well.  He has taken two photography courses already, one taught by myself and one outside course, and so he has a good understanding of using light, exposure, and composition.  I could see that knowledge being put to work as he carefully considered where to shoot from, and how to tell the story of this grand old building and pay it the respect it deserved.  Of course, we offered a few thoughts, but this really is fully Josh’s project, and after I made a couple of suggestions, I backed off, and have pretty much done so the entire time here.  I want him to have a finished product he can look at and feel total ownership over, and yet I realize a project of this magnitude is well beyond the ability of a 15 year old to totally grasp without a bit of support and guidance.  However, I am trying to guide, not “tell”, and to suggest, not direct.

Standing in the middle of the empty sanctuary, it was hard not to feel the grief and sorrow this congregation is feeling as I looked overhead at the afternoon sky visible through tell tale blue tarps covering gaping holds in the ceiling.  Trusses have pulled away from bowing walls, the bell tower has pulled away from the building and the old bell has been removed and crated for possible later use.  The enormous antique pipe organ has been removed and is not likely to be re-used, a relic from days gone by.  Puddles were frozen on the carpet, the ice taking on the hues reflected from the stained glass windows.  The scent of “building death” was in the air, of mustiness and neglect, so different from a mere year ago when our entire family worshiped in this place on Christmas Eve, and where Kenny had offered his very first sermon...the last regular Sunday morning sermon ever preached from that pulpit.

We left the building behind and headed off to interview #2, where Josh began to show a little more confidence as we sat in another room and overheard him question his interviewee.  This is not a natural skill for him, and we were able to offer a couple of tips afterward to make it a little easier, but I was pleased to hear him try to “go off script” and attempt to be more natural.  It isn’t an easy thing to learn, and these fumbling first steps have to be worked through as it does with learning any new skill.  Our “adventure” continued as we attempted to leave their home, only to get stuck in a snow back in ever dropping temperatures and have to wait for AAA to come tow us out!  We had to reschedule two more interviews and ended up calling it a night as we were cold, damp, and worn out.

Ahhh...but little did I know the magic that awaited us on Day 2, and perhaps more of the reason for us to be here than I might have ever known had I not listened to that little whispering of the Spirit nudging me to make this happen.

I had no idea that Josh was about to meet his 86 year old self in the face of his first interviewee of the day.  Bill is a beautiful human being, inside and out, and I had not connected the dots of his own personal story that might speak to Josh.  You see, Bill was a "state kid" who grew up in foster care, never to be adopted and aging out of the system to face the world on his own.  He presents a strong, chivalrous "old school" style of manhood combined with a gentle kindness and openness with his emotions that is also unusual and appealing.  He greeted us with a hearty smile and eager anticipation to share with Josh, and we left to head to attend the book group I lead each week via Skype.

As I was involved in heart sharing with the small group of women from Candi's church, Josh was engaged in deep heart sharing of his own with Bill.  Though he didn't immediately share much about his time with Bill, later in the day, likely after much processing, he started talking and it was obvious this had been a sacred experience for them both.  Josh started by explaining that at first, this had simply been a great story to tell and a "cool project", but that after his time with Bill it became much more, in fact  Candi and I both heard the shift in his voice and saw it in his body language.  He said that Bill had been so open, and really poured his heart out about what the church means to him, and about his life in general.  He said it brought the story to life in some ways, and that at one point during their time together, they both were in tears and that it moved from being an interview, to a deep and powerful conversation between two people.  He learned about Bill's childhood and the challenges of his life, no doubt with Bill having no clue how the sharing might tie into Josh's own life story.  Bill explained how he was brought back to the church after a years long absence when he encountered God in a new way and had made a promise that then involved him ever more deeply in the life of this church.  Josh was clearly moved by his time with Bill, and he said they just hugged and hugged afterward, and that it really mattered.  It also helped him to understand how this project is far more than a mere high school assignment, but that even at his tender young age of 15, he too can bring light and love, and the gift of listening to others...and that it really, really matters.

From that moment on there was a new investment from Josh in this, almost as if he sensed he is part of something bigger than himself here.  This is SO much more than I would have dared dream for him!  He is understanding, intuitively, the healing power of sharing our stories.  He is seeing first hand what it truly means to "be the church" despite extraordinarily difficult and depressing circumstances as he hears time and time again the commitment each person expresses to their congregation, their passion for their community and the desire to remain vitally involved and engaged in whatever was they can, regardless of age or lack of a building.  He is finding male role models who are faith filled, gentle and expressive souls, yet also masculine and strong...much like he himself is.  He is learning on an even deeper level something he already knew, and that is that age doesn't limit us from relationship or vigorous reaching out for life...our own attitudes do.

I was looking for a "great adventure" for Josh, I wanted something special for our youngest who is so special in every way himself.  I hoped for something that might help him reach toward his more adult self and help him gain confidence in who he is, not just what he can do.  I wanted the chance for him to be the center of attention, not just "one of the kids", because often the very real needs each of our others has required more of me.  I wanted his "special need" of giftedness to be put to the test and met in an unusual way, as truly those who are gifted are often not viewed as needing anything different, but trust me, they do.  Parenting and educating two of them along with twice exceptional and truly learning disabled means the gifted part has often had to be pushed aside to take care of the more critical needs, leaving the giftedness unintentionally by the wayside sometimes.

What I didn't dare think to ask for was something that would explain Josh to himself, to help him understand the power of his own story, and to help him move forward with confidence toward the extraordinary man I am certain he will become.  I didn't approach this as much from a faith perspective as I did from an academic and emotional development place, but as always, the Spirit shines through, reaching out for us when we least expect it, offering us exactly what we need when we need it.  And that has happened on both sides here, as I have watched the healing power of story telling, of being heard, of knowing someone else cares and is interested, even if it is only a 15 year old young man working on an unprofessional high school film project.  I have watched God gently at work all over the place his week, and again I shake my head in wonder and amazement as I gain a little more understanding of the ways of the Spirit.

The end product here really isn't a film, the end product here is healed hearts.  That alone has made the trip a worthwhile venture.  Anything else is just icing on the cake.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

What Really Matters

Have you ever done something with your family, and then immediately realized it was going to become "a thing"?  Our New Year's Eve tradition evolved from what I originally thought might be a one time event, but the kids decided it was going to be formally declared a Tradition with a capital "T".  In fact, we even took our Tradition on the road with us last year, packing fondue pots to go along with us when we spent the holidays with our dear friends!  This year, the plan was altered a bit, but ultimately it turned out precisely how the Spirit wanted it to be.

As the new year approached, Olesya was sick and had been for days, and in fact is still fighting off a nasty cough.  We also had plans to serve dinner on New Year's Eve to the homeless along with members of our former congregation, and at the last minute we decided to move our celebration to New Year's Day, which thrilled Josh as he then went to spend the night at his best friend's house and enjoyed their gathering, too.  However, we all ended up helping to feed 47 people that night, and we all agreed it was a wonderful way to spend the evening if we weren't going to do our "usual" activities. 

I also think it was a strong reminder of how blessed our family is, but additionally, that there is far less separating us from others than we think there is.  Truthfully, what separates us is our own reluctance to connect with others because we think they are so different than we are.  I gave an older gentleman a hug after his third helping because he said that was the only other thing he could think of that he really and truly needed, and I thought about how every human being needs connection.  The kids are all unafraid of being in these settings now, as we have done so regularly throughout their childhood, and their kindness towards others touches me, but it is their ability to "see" others and not judge that matters most.  After all, they too were once "homeless" and "familyless", though few would look at them and realize this.  Some of us have been spiritually homeless and familyless, too, and that also leads to an understanding of a different sort of poverty that isn't always as obvious with outward appearances.  Relationship and being known is at the heart of our deepest longings as humans.

New Year's Day we prepared everything for our evening Fondue Feast!  We do it once a year only, and it makes for a lovely and leisurely way to spend time around the table together.  This year was no exception and we all enjoyed it very much.  Though this might seem like the "main course", so to speak, of our tradition, but in fact, it is merely the appetizer.

The main course is what happens next, at the kids' insistence, and it is when we figuratively throw the doors wide open, and invite God to the table.  Lights are lowered, candles are lit, and hearts are shared.

One at a time, we spoke, being present to one another as we answered the questions, "How did you change and what did you learn in 2017?", and "What are your hopes for growth for 2018?"  This is not a time for restating accomplishments or bragging about about achievements, this is more about who we are not what we do.

This sacred place, this kitchen table of ours, looks nothing like an alter, nor is it surrounded by paraments or stained glass, but be that as it may, it is a Sanctuary in all the ways it can possibly be.  That is due to the faithfulness of those who gather here, not just us, but friends throughout the years who have brought their own sacred selves to share with us, too, and our family has been changed for the better because of it.

Three hours of quiet conversation ensued, as one by one, sons and daughters, mother and father all revealed what the past year had been like for them as they lit their own personal candle.  Then, every family member spoke about what they had also seen in terms of growth and change for that person.  It was as beautiful as can be, having each person lifted up one by one, encouraged to become ever more of their real selves, having their progress as people growing in character and courage lifted up before the entire family.  Dreams for the future were acknowledged and affirmed.  Our little geeky squad offered quotes repeatedly to make their points, from St. Augustine to Aristotle to Solzhenitsyn to FDR to Tolstoy (and no, they were not all offered by Matthew!)  Over and over, authenticity and out of the box thinking was praised, as many declared that they grew in the ability to stop caring as much what others thought and live the life they felt called to live. 

One highlight was when Matt pointed out that he recalled two years ago our family having a heart to heart conversation with Olesya, and about how none of us felt we really knew her and how closed up she was.  He praised how much she had grown in this area, and we all agreed that there was a new openness to her, and that not a single one of us could say that about her any longer!  Such an impressive amount of work on prying open a heart that was long scared to put itself at risk.  This is a family filled with overcoming in all sort of ways.

We sipped on sparkling cider out of dollar store champagne classes, and time stood still.  one by one, each candle was lit that joined our first candle signifying our family as a whole, and the light shined brighter and brighter.  No one glanced at the clock, everyone was offered the gift of time to gather their thoughts and express them gently.  It was powerful, it was meaningful, it was sacred in every sense of the word.

This little family of ours...so different, so "weird" as declared by some, so counter cultural.  We don't match in any way if one looks through eyes solely grounded in the world.  Yet we match, oh man, do we match beautifully.  There are connecting strands that tie each of us to one another.  It has nothing to do with biology, or race, or nation of origin.  It has to do with faith, heart and intellect.  It has to do with choosing to love one another deeply, fervently, and forever. 

And we will do that in 2018, and beyond.  We will each continue to grow steadily, to pursue interests, and to always, always offer love, both within our family, and to every person we encounter.

We don't know how to be any other way...and that is what really matters.