every breath that comes before (with lots of parentheses)

It’s a crazy week. It has been a crazy week. It’s the end and the beginning of another one (so not really crazy just normal) and I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay attention. Life is a lot about paying attention. PAY ATTENTION is what I yell at other drivers. It’s what I mutter to myself as I hear news about the country. It’s what I think when I hear a question that has already been answered. I’m usually paying scrupulous attention to everything. Hyper-observant. Can’t stand it when I have to slow down a conversation for tedious explanations of what I think you should know. This is my presumption and arrogance, I know.

But sometimes I zone out. It’s when I get overwhelmed and I can’t engage anymore. My brain shuts off. It’s all or nothing. If I can’t pay full attention, I can’t even. And I’m at that point right now when I’m in danger of zoning out of life for a day or two, unless I write it out.

So many different waves crossing through my mind, which current to jump into? Are they the same river? Goodness gracious.
At least it isn’t dry anymore.

There’s a song by The Oh Hellos that begins, “No, I am not afraid to die / It’s every breath that comes before,” and that is pretty much my life. That’s my struggle. Fear is maybe my fatal flaw? It clouds everything I do, every interaction with other humans, every thought about the future, every idea about how I should live and what I should do with the living I’m given. I’m not afraid to die (generally), but I am afraid to live.

On Thursday night, my Intercultural City Ministry class visited the president of Latinos en Axion at one of the churches where the group meets. His story was incredible, from living on the U.S./Mexico border to escaping an endangered life there to helping immigrants from Latin American countries make a life here in the U.S. He has so many stories to tell, and many of them just made me feel a sense of hopelessness. But his attitude was one I’m coming to recognize. It shows up in people who have seen some of the darkest parts of life in this world, and it’s the sense of inexplicable hope and enduring joy that sustains their continued work for justice.

After visiting with him for awhile, we walked over to a coffee shop to talk more with our professor. He asked for our thoughts on the idea of being a “chaplain to the powerful,” a concept from one of the books we are reading. I’ve been around enough conversations with people doing work or ministry in different areas of social justice to know that someone will inevitably ask them the question, “What can I do? How can I get involved? What does that mean for me?” These are good questions that reflect a positive response and a desire to contribute. But sometimes they just reveal that we want to be told exactly what to do, rather than letting the ambiguity motivate us toward creative action. Anyway, when someone asked the director of Latinos en Axion a question along these lines, his response began with talk to other people in places of power, and talk to your representatives. This is a common response as well – go back to where you came from, and change people’s minds. Go talk to your family and see what they think, and tell them what you’ve discovered. Once you get woke, stay woke. Spread it around.

I talked later about how this idea of speaking truth to power is usually the last thing I want to hear in these scenarios. I see the people with their boots-on-the-ground and their passion and their relationships, and I think that seems amazing. I want to know how to get from where I am (A) to where they are (B). But what I keep hearing is that I have a responsibility to those people with less power, privilege, and opportunity, who suffer injustice and oppression. Those people I care so much about. If I really care, won’t I advocate for them with people I know hold harmful beliefs? Won’t I try to change some minds? What do I have privilege for?

The phrase the director repeated over and over that night was, “Every head is a different world.” Our minds are tricky and sly. They like to think for themselves and about themselves, and they’re stubborn. Our hearts can be softened, and we can learn to be sensitive toward one another as we come to understand each other. We might know the truth, but “every head is a different world,” and surely some people come to mind.

The following night, my group for the same class (which consists of me and a married couple in the program) went to do part of our project together. We went to the “feeding ministry” of the church we are working to get to know. It’s a meal-serving ministry to the community on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings. The church is an African American Baptist church with two locations in St. Louis. We met some lovely people, and afterward met with the director of a nonprofit that runs out of the church. This man (Rev. and probably Dr.) was a wealth of knowledge and stories. We barely got a question in edgewise in this “interview.” And we left after about two hours with a few answers and brains full of unknown names, places, and tendrils of stories trying to hang on to memory. (It was awesome.)

One of the most convicting and true things he said was…well, I’ll have to paraphrase: You’ll have to put yourself in harm’s way to help people. It’s going to happen. You cannot be afraid and help people at the same time.

((( You cannot be afraid and help people at the same time. )))

It just rang in my ears.

This Sunday morning (today), we were planning to visit the church. The service times are 8:00 and 11:00, and I needed to go early, but my partners were planning to go at 11:00, so I went by myself. My church background consists of going pretty much every Sunday of my life to a Presbyterian, Methodist, or Lutheran church with a primarily white congregation and pretty mellow-liturgical-everything. This was a primarily black church (mine was truly the only white face I saw) with a more responsive and active congregation. It was lovely, and everyone there was so kind. (I even have a privileged experience as a minority amongst people who probably know exactly what it feels like to be the only one with their skin in a sea of people and are often treated worse for it.) Digress, Emily.

Suffice it to say I’m a little relationally spent. All of my people energy is gone, and I’m not ready for the week.

My devotional book on the Psalms had me in numbers 42 and 43 this week – two of my absolute favorites, especially 42.

“Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (42:5 & 11 and 43:5)

This back and forth is the turn that I have to force my heart to make every day. Yes, you get downcast and disturbed. But ask yourself why. You have almighty God, so you have hope, and you have a reason to be thankful every day. I’m not so good at this, which is why I need to hear it. What can I say to my soul in those downcast moments? How can I praise with a sense of true delight – not just out of the duty and imperative: praise him! It’s always a task to stop merely listening to the running monologue of my heart’s discouragement and to start speaking truth. You have to know the truth by heart to speak it on impact.

I breathe in (fear) I breathe out (downcast)
Quickly and my heart keeping time
You can’t help anyone let alone yourself
Hope in God hope in God why can’t you

I breathe in (truth) I breathe out (death)

I breathe in (hope) I breathe out (praise)

[Nod to national poetry month (I heard?), haven’t done that in at least a year, clearly.]
These instances, these conversations, and these thoughts are swirling and making me wonder what’s about to happen. There is a sense of impending decision, like maybe I’m on the cusp of figuring something out. But no epiphanies today.

See past the recommendations to listen to the Oh Hellos song.

Recommendations:
Ok, guys. Since I don’t blog super often, I’m making up for lost time here. 🙂

Podcast: “Missing Richard Simmons” (I’ve heard the whole thing, 6 episodes.) Yeah I know he’s fine and all that jazz, so if you’re cynical and think this podcast is stupid then I don’t want you to listen to it anyway. JK maybe you should give it a chance.
Podcast: “S-town” (I’ve only heard the first one, but I’ll be finishing it.)
(I listen to podcasts whenever I’m in the car now, because I’m in the car for about an hour a day. Makes it easy to burn through episodes.)
Album: Listen to the River, by The Collection (And their first album if you haven’t heard it!)
Book: The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker (FIRST IN A SERIES which is very important information that I did not have at time of reading LOL)

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