Saturday, July 30, 2011

OMG life. (Or, the post in which Julia decides she wants a black Baptist funeral.)

There's a whole lotta life going on right now, friends, and I'm doing my best to testify.

Last Monday, my coworker Charisse passed away unexpectedly. She was only 32. I got the call from my colleague Priya as I was checking out of a hotel in Buffalo, NY. I spent the next 8 hours in the car sniffling, cursing, and contemplating my own mortality.

I can't claim a long and deep friendship with Charisse. We became friendlier over the last year through our shared love of faith and writing. Charisse was a modern patron of the arts, and she practiced it daily. She was a particular champion of my blog, for which I'll always be grateful, and she connected me with other writers both within and outside our organization.

This connection, as small as it seems compared to her other relationships, brings this post from a different place in my heart. Her untimely death strikes a spiritual chord for me that other recent passings have not. It makes me think about what defines a life well-lived, what 'leaving a legacy' really means, and what we are meant to accomplish on earth.

This morning I and about 8 bajillion other people gathered to celebrate Charisse's life. And because hers was a black Baptist congregation, it really WAS a celebration, not a euphemistic whitewashing of a Very Sad Event. Singing, dancing, praising, shouting, fans, hats -- the service had it all. Even the name spoke hope: this was not a funeral, but a homegoing.

The testimonials from her friends and family confirmed what I'd suspected all week: that Charisse may have died prematurely, but she had lived at the height of her powers. She lived with knowledge of purpose. She lived at the ready.

"Be persistent in pursuing your miracle," Rev. Velvet Abram said from the pulpit today. Well, Charisse was. So when her moment came, she accomplished something most people only dream of: she left behind little to remedy and little to regret. That is a remarkable achievement at any age, and pretty damn close to a miracle.

I'm not ashamed to admit I burned through an entire pack of Kleenex during the two-hour service. I'm also not ashamed to admit that I am very, very white and was clapping on the wrong beat to half the songs.

I am a little ashamed to admit, however, that my mourning is ultimately selfish. I mourn for what another 40, 50, 60 years of life for Charisse would have given the rest of us -- more conversations, more paintings, more poetry, more love.

But I'm not mourning Charisse as she was. For she was what God is always asking us to be -- her full, authentic, and irrepressible self.

That's how to live a life, friends.

[Want to learn more about Charisse? Read these stellar reflections from her fellow writers and friends: Amy Moffitt's "Goodbye, beautiful girl" and Priya Chhaya's "My Heart is Aching."]

Prayer #173: Speak Life

Speak life.

You can sing it or shout it or whisper it -- whatever your chords are built for.

But speak it nonetheless. Give it full voice. Such is your duty, your mandate, and your privilege.

For to remain silent is to disappear, trace no mark, leave no ripple.

But to speak ...

Well, that is to write your name in the stars.


Monday, July 11, 2011

The parable of the email

No Email Messages

The woman went to her cubicle to send an email to her loved one.

The first email she sent was rushed and short. It was filled with typos and emoticons. The receiver did not know what to make of it, and so did not respond.

Dismayed at not hearing from her loved one, the woman sent a second email. This one was overthought. It was filled with words that did not match her feelings. The receiver misunderstood the email, and sent back a short and unsatisfactory response.

Now she decided to send a third email. She sat down and examined her heart, and typed its truth on the screen. She sent it with the knowledge it was honest. And the receiver finally grasped her message, and responded in kind.


Why don’t we speak in parables anymore?

Wine and seeds. Vines and sheep. Coins and sons. All common elements of a past world, and all used to illustrate bigger, more mysterious concepts.

Yet we don’t teach each other in such direct ways today. Are our systems too complicated? Are our professions too erudite? Or are we of the 21st century simply above them -- beyond mystery and beyond questions?

I crave a parable for our times. I want a crucial truth about our mysterious God broken down into something that’s a little more than metaphor, and told to me in a sing-song voice that lulls me into understanding.

I don’t care if it’s about technology or pop culture or politics. Just make it real. Make it relevant. Make it understood.

Prayer #172: Parable

God of yarns, tell me a story.

Give me a hero and a villain. Outline the conflict, lay out the quest. Lead me through three acts. Grant a happy ending.

For the world is an obstinate place that refuses corralling into a single thread, and the enormity and breadth of its subplots can overwhelm even the most dedicated reader.

Show me the page that matters most in this moment. Give me a hint how this chapter could end.


Monday, July 04, 2011

Independence Day: The result of hope, conviction, and abject terror

Exhibit A: Hope & Conviction

Exhibit B: Abject Terror

What does it take to go against the world you've known up to this point? What does it take to commit your signature in black ink to a treasonous document? What does it take to risk your life on a principle and belief?

Every year I wake up on the 4th of July with these questions on my mind, and then I go watch fireworks and eat hot dogs and forget them until the next year. This Independence Day, however, I found myself remembering John Adams (NERD ALERT!), a longtime crush of IMS for his sincere passion and gruff humanity.

Here are several reasons Adams' conviction rings true to me even after the muffling of 200-odd years:
  • He appreciates the full scope and magnitude of this decision. It's not a lark, but a real, serious endeavor. And Adams knows the repercussions aren't his alone to bear, but his children's as well.
  • He recognizes the conflict will cost dearly in human lives and suffering. He is not blinded by glory or promise.
  • He acknowledges his opponents, particularly John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. Adams knows his personal view is not universal, and he does not force it on others in the room.
  • Nor does he sanitize or temper his belief to satisfy popular opinion. Instead, Adams stands in a room of his peers and says out loud, "All that I have, all that I am, and all that I hope in this life I am now ready to stake upon it. While I live, let me have a country -- a free country."
Which begs the question ... On what am I ready to stake all I have, all I am, and all I hope for?

Eww. Itchy. If I have no immediate answer, does that mean I have no convictions? And even if I do answer in the relative anonymity of a blog post, would I have the courage to back it up when the army was at my door?

Either way, I have the liberty to even ask myself this question on my terms and answer with my beliefs because I live in a country secured by others' convictions, others' fears, and others' hopes. That's a powerful legacy, and I feel called to contribute to it, even if I'm not yet sure how.

Here again I look to Adams' words for support: "Where he foresees apocalypse, I see hope." I want to say this of myself -- which led to this prayer.

Prayer #171: Fear of Conviction

God who suffers no doubt, except at our hands:

Do we develop convictions to bulwark against our fears? Or do our fears cement convictions?

Do our future hopes give us purpose for the present? Or do present beliefs beget self-fulfilling prophecies?

Is it even worthwhile to question which chicken leads to what egg, or which virtuous or vicious cycle is in play?

Because whether we start from fear, or from hope, or from conviction, we soon discover the three are inextricable -- all bedrock layers that eventually form our principles.

Foment this perpetual rebellion in our cores, and let the values that best serve You rise to guide us.