Archive for brandyn simmons

I, Judas

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2019 by thecrossingchicago

It was an intimate moment between the two of them.  Sure, there were others around.  Some were undoubtedly watching with their own interpretations wondering what it was that they were seeing.  Perhaps there was some dis-ease among a few, but then again, they were likely preoccupied by the fact that they were eating dinner with and talking to a man who was long enough in the grave to have a stench.

Judas made his opinion known as Mary used her hair to apply the mixture of nard and tears to Jesus’s feet in her final act of love this side of the tomb.  It was a frozen point in time special to the two people who were in it, who got it, who knew they needed it because it would be their last opportunity before the hands of fate would wrap them in its hatefully morbid grasp.

Like Judas imposing his own concerns about selling the expensive perfume instead of “wasting” it on Jesus, we often find ourselves in similar situations where we are assigning our own bias from the periphery.  Who knows if Judas was lining his pockets with the treasury money, but we do know that he was inserting himself into a space that wasn’t meant for him.

I dreaded carrying the pager.  Every chaplain in the hospital had to take turns, but I seemed to get it on days when I just wanted to set my mind on cruise control and get the day done with no interruptions.  That Monday was no exception.  When the pager started playing its irritating tune on my hip, I knew that I wasn’t going to get that luxury.

The number on the pager told me that it was the ER.  Most of the time, you don’t have any trouble finding your destination when you go to the ER because there is a flurry of activity and you make your way to it like a moth to a flame – occasionally with the same effects.

Diego’s mother was sitting in a chair just outside the bay where her three year-old son was covered in what looked like bubble wrap to keep him warm.  Tubes extended everywhere from his small body and machines were whirring and humming all around.  His father sat to the right of the bed with his head in his hands occasionally looking up at his boy in dismay.

His mom was understandably in hysterics and I knelt by her side to try to offer some comfort.  There wasn’t much I could do other than just be there and sometimes that has to be enough.  There were no magic words or incantations that were going to undo what had already been done at the bottom of a pool covered in a tarp that the unknowing tot had apparently mistaken for a trampoline.

She wanted something tangible to hold on to because she couldn’t hold her baby.  The team was doing their best to bring him back to life, but most knew it was futile.  I was doing my best not to show my emotions so that I could be strong for this broken woman, but I about came undone when she fell on the ground and clutched his tiny little shoes to her chest.  Seemingly washing them with her hair and tears in a Mary-like gesture for one who would not be raised.

It’s hard to forget things like that.  I wondered how Diego was doing and eventually assumed he had already died as I went about my week tending to other emergencies.  It was that following Thursday when, once again, that dreaded piece of plastic was clasped to my belt.  With the same desire to go about my day uninterrupted, I looked with disdain at the number on the display as it played its foreboding tune.  I didn’t recognize the extension and had to call to see where I was headed.  Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

I pressed the button outside the unit and waited for a nurse to buzz me in.  As the doors opened, the antiseptic smell of rubbing alcohol and every antibacterial potion filled my nostrils.  Being a lifelong member of the I-Hate-Needles Club, it never failed to make me wince.

Making my way to the nurses’ station I made eye contact with the nurse in charge for that shift.  She tilted her head toward the open door down the hall and I looked wondering who was in there.  I could see Diego’s mom poking her head out the door sobbing, looking down the hall and then briefly at me before she went back inside the room.  So it was going to be one of those days.

I had no idea what had happened to Diego and his family.  The days blended together and other patients, other crises didn’t necessarily make me forget about them, but at least took them from the forefront of my awareness.  Now I at least knew they had made it this far.

I came around the side of the station and stood to the right of the nurse who was pouring over some documents.  She looked up at me with a look that I occasionally got from nurses that said, “What the hell do I do?”  She looked down the hall a few doors down from Diego’s room to where I could see people walking in a circle and hear music of some kind as they undulated to the beat.

“He’s gone and I ain’t going in there to tell them, Chappy.”  She looked back up at me.

“Alright.  I’ll do it.”  I took a deep breath and shook my head as I made my way toward the sound of what seemed to be praise and worship music in Spanish.  The people were waving their hands, some crying, as they threw prayers to the ceiling as if the intensity of their prayers was proportionate to the distance they would travel to God’s ears.

“I know God hears your prayers.”  I gulped as they all stopped and began to gather around me.  “But we need to pray for comfort and peace now because he’s gone.”

The weeping was of biblical proportions – tearing of clothes and heaping of ashes.  It was almost too much to bear seeing these people come apart.  Some collapsed into each other in a melee of tears and others began to pray through the sobbing as they once again began their circular dance.

I led a group of them back to Diego’s room and wasn’t prepared for what I would find.  I took a deep breath before I entered the room and unlike Lazarus, there was no smell of death.  Although he never regained any of his brain function after his fateful swim, he remained “alive” on machines until minutes before.

With the kind of grief that only a mother could feel, she held his lifeless body wrapped in a brown coarse blanket almost like a saddle blanket.  She hugged him close to her breast and I could see her shoulders tremble and heave from behind as she wept.  I placed a hand on her shoulder and once again did everything within my power to keep from losing it myself.  As an empath, it’s sometimes almost too unbearable to stand so close to a burning bush.

She turned to me and held out her little boy.  At first, I didn’t know what to do.  I stood frozen as I looked at the shell of this tiny life and then back up at her.  Then I got it.  I took Diego in my arms and held him tight for a few moments.  I kissed his smooth precious forehead and turned and passed him on to the person next to me – probably an aunt.  It was hard to see her face through my tears and that was ok.

As I watched each person hold Diego and anoint his face and hands with their tears, my feeling of dismay and discomfort gave way to a better realization.  Where I initially felt an extreme dis-ease around them passing this body around and that they were somehow doing something wrong, I became aware that it was I who was wrong.  It wasn’t that these people were doing something horrific or unconscionable.  It was I, who like Judas, had walked into a thin place and imposed my own interpretations as I wasn’t immediately able to see the pure holiness of it all.

War and the Corporate True Self

Posted in ego, peace, service, true self, war with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

Another Veterans Day is upon us and, as I do every year, I ask myself what it’s all about.  There is a cynical side of me that says we are glorifying something that should never happen under any circumstance.  The idea of exterminating human beings for the sake of being right seems appalling to me and to celebrate those who have participated in them in any way causes me to feel the mournful disdain of glorifying violence.  But, after much contemplation, I can see that, as in all things, there is another side of the coin.

Of course I realize that we are celebrating valor and the courage of those who were willing to risk (and sometimes lose) their lives for a cause greater than themselves.  Sure, some may have entered military service to avoid jail time, some to kill, and some to enforce their ideals.  It is sometimes, however, those very ideals that perpetuate the violence in the first place.  Our addiction to being right all the time can lead to the reinforcement of a false truth.

On the way to the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC this year, I was listening to a podcast with Fr. Richard Rohr.  He said that we know we are operating from the False Self, or the ego, when we are individually offended by some action or words.  As I drove on, with much time to ponder, I came to the conclusion that the opposite is also true: Any time we are offended on behalf of humankind, we are operating from our True Self.

So what does this have to do with war?  We have been called to defend and empower the least of these.  If someone is marginalized and oppressed, it is our duty to lend our voice to stopping the oppression and even to joining a revolution against it.  As we know, sometimes revolutions require force.

In his New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton calls the church to being in a constant state of revolution.  He says that the church must return to tradition, which seems like an oxymoron when placing tradition and revolution next to each other in synonymous relationship.  For most, tradition is the very enemy of reform as we do things “the way we have always done them.”  For Merton, though, the tradition is the revolution: “[T]his tradition must always be a revolution because by its very nature it denies the values and standards to which human passion is so powerfully attached” (143).

In other words, tradition is the outward manifestation, in practice, of the church’s True Self.  If individuals have a True Self and organizations are living organisms comprised of individuals, then they too must have a corporate True Self.  Too many churches and organizations have not only lost sight of who they are, but likely have never cared to know.

This is no less true for entire countries who allow or even create structures that lead to systemic oppression.  When it comes time to upend these systems, we hope that the revolution can be a peaceful one from the inside with the death of the individual and corporate False Selves.  According to Merton, “all the others demand the extermination of somebody else” (144).

If violence is the only means of insurrection and not an internal death of False Self giving birth to what is True, then indeed

There will be violence, and power will pass from one party to another, but when the smoke clears and the bodies of the dead men are underground, the situation will be essentially the same as it was before: there will be a minority of strong men in power exploiting all the others for their own ends.  There will be the same greed and cruelty and lust and ambition and avarice and hypocrisy as before (144).

It is arguable, and likely a fact that more wars have been started over religion than any other issue.  Dogmatic absolute “truths” lead humans to carry their ideologies on their backs into battle with sword and gun in hand. If we can hold our own created beliefs at arm’s length where they are visible to us and see them for the “dry formula of a dogmatic definition” that they are, then perhaps we can approach our ideas with humility, grace, and a fair reflection of our True Selves.  Instead of creating individual “truths” from a False Self that only leads to the extermination of human lives, let us find our oneness in the source of all being, the one in whom we find the image of who we really are.

What They Didn’t Tell You

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

At the writer’s conference that I mentioned in my last post, we were challenged in one of the individual workshops with writing prompts.  Sometimes the prompts can be downright hokey, but I thought that most of those given at the conference were genuinely thought- and reflection-provoking.  The final prompt that was given to take back with us to our respective homes and writing desks was, “What they don’t tell you about.”  So, I will stick with the theme and see how it goes.

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They.  The pronoun that represents anyone and no one.  I guess “they” are grandparents, parents, the wise elders of society, talking heads, preachers, and gurus.  They tell you that you can get whatever you want as long as you work hard enough for it.  They tell you to never give up.  They tell you that if you get a college education that everything will go smoothly.  They even tell you that there will be some pain in life, but there is nothing that God gives us that we can’t handle. Yeah, they tell you a lot, but there’s plenty that they don’t tell you.

For one thing, they don’t tell you about how unfair life can sometimes be – that life really is like a box of chocolates.  That, although you think you know,  you have no idea what you are biting in to and there’s a good chance that you might crack a tooth on an unexpected almond.  Or that you may put the whole piece in your mouth while in unfamiliar company just to realize it’s coconut when you can’t stand the taste of coconut and it makes you want to puke,  but you can’t spit it out so you swallow it trying to keep the wince imperceptible.

They also don’t mention that regardless of the taste of the filling or the texture of the inside, life is encapsulated in sweetness.  You’ll sometimes draw some that aren’t the most appealing or tasty or even downright disgusting, but there is still some deliciousness even in that single bite and if you only focus on it, the experience can still be enjoyable.

Another thing they don’t tell you is that order of things is really just a fabrication to make ourselves feel better.  Babies will die before their mothers and grandparents will live to see their grandchildren perish.  The true order is that there is none.  We are made to believe that as long as we treat people nicely, we will live long lives and never experience the pain of loss.  But we all know that this is a fairy tale.

The flip side to this is another thing that they don’t teach you – that there is healing on the other side.  That things will somehow be ok despite the fact that they never will be.  There’s nothing anyone can say to make it better and you will hear many utterances that will make matters worse instead of better, even though the one saying them means well.  You will even be guilty of making such comments yourself.  You will learn, though, that there is such a thing as “holding space” and that the mere compassionate presence of another will do wonders to help you see that indeed God is with you though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  They don’t tell you that, as painful as it may be, you will sometimes be situated at the right place and time to be that compassionate presence for another.

They tell you that you can be and do anything you want to in life as long as you work hard.  If you go to school and get a good education, then the world is your oyster and nothing can stop you.  They tell you that you can make as much money as you want and have any job that you want as long as you keep your nose to the grindstone and go to the right schools.

What they don’t tell you is that your grade A education can never be a substitute for passion.  They don’t mention that you can get that great job and then be laid off in a flash of restructuring.  They forget to teach you that all of your book studies will never prepare you for the realities of life and that compassion and mindfulness will always supersede knowledge.  They also forgot to impart to you that money isn’t and never will be everything and that you can become a prisoner in a cell of your own construction.

Even with all of this, they don’t tell you that there is such a thing as joy.  Being caught up in the “important things,” they forget to mention the euphoria that comes from feeding a hungry child or the feeling of wet sand between your toes as you walk barefoot at the beach or the sound of rain on leaves and freshly bloomed flowers.  They overlook sharing that there are sacred spaces and music that stirs the soul and good wine.  They didn’t deem it worthwhile to mention that the sound of laughter can move you more than any pithy quote and that there is more peace to be found in a single breath than in all the sacred texts ever written.

They forgot to teach you a lot.  But despite that, you have learned.  Life taught you what they couldn’t and you have been a good student because at some point you realized that the key to understanding wasn’t how much you studied or where you went to school, but how well you listened and how aware you were about how things really are.  Well done good and faithful student.  And let’s not blame them.  Maybe they never did learn or maybe they forgot or perhaps they were just too afraid to let go of the way they think things ought to be.  You have done and occasionally still do that.  So do I.

 

With a Lump in My Throat

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on June 10, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

For the past few days, I was at Princeton Seminary for the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop – something so worthwhile that I have made it into an annual pilgrimage.  Listening to geniuses such as Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, and the master himself through other greats speak of the craft is exhilarating.  It always serves as the catalyst that I need to get out of a slump and begin to write again with more passion.

Buechner has written volume after volume about religion and spirituality.  In speaking of the word itself, he says that

[r]eligion as a word points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage; where he senses meanings no less overwhelming because they can only be hinted at in myth and ritual; where he glimpses a destination that he can never know fully until he reaches it.

I often find myself allergic to the word “religion”.  When someone launches on a diatribe around religion, I feel my throat swelling, my arms begin to itch, and a sneeze tickle its way out.  Anaphylaxis sets in and my breathing becomes belabored.  The word “spirituality” seems to connote, for me, a more approachable reality that allows for the movement of the spirit and not a mere assent to intellectual understanding or belief.  Buechner provides for me an antihistamine with unfathomable efficacy.

For Buechner, writing  is and was a religious practice.  It is a ritual for the writer to express his or her encounter with the divine.  It is, although often inadequate, an attempt to reveal to the rest of the world what the mystic has perhaps accidentally stumbled upon.  Sitting down to convey such an experience is akin to chanting an ancient liturgy or presenting bread and wine in the hopes that those gathered at the altar can see it as body and blood as clearly as the one who is giving it.

In order to write, to create, to do religion, to actually see beyond the veil, one must acknowledge whatever it is he or she has come upon.  Unfortunately, few of us give ourselves enough credit to be able to see in such a way that our souls converse with the whispers and sighs that are beyond words.  Buechner says:

We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe—life is complicated enough as it is, after all. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves. Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we tend to go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.

“To enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.”  And there it is.  The redemption, for me, of the word “religion.”  That’s all it is.  Simply a word that struggles in its simplicity to describe a reality beyond description.  Sacred space, thin places, the setting where the Spirit can faintly be heard dancing over the face of the deep causing ripples that seem to hum something so beautiful that not even Barber could have conceived it.

Some do, however, dare to undertake the impossible.  Those who create art are those who listen for the voice of the muses and attempt to translate their message for the rest of us.  Buechner said that those creative souls who set about this work of holy interpretation are driven by a fire not unlike that of Jeremiah when he said that “the word is in my bones and if I do not speak it, it will consume me.”  The labor of imagination and awareness of an unseen place plants the seeds that allow for the birth of the sacred amidst the mundane.

Buechner shows us what this process looks like for the writer as he or she sits down to create as the experience they seek to record is recalled:

First the lump in the throat, the stranger’s face unfurling like a flower, and then the clatter of the keys, the ting-a-ling of the right-hand margin. One thinks of Pascal sewing into his jacket, where after his death a servant found it, his “since about half past ten in the evening until about half past midnight. Fire. Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace,” stammering it out like a child because he had to. Fire, fire, and then the scratch of pen on paper. There are always some who have to set it down in black and white.

Sitting on the Orange Line train from Midway Airport, alone with my thoughts and having nothing better to do than reflect over the wisdom imparted while hoping that with me it didn’t fall futilely like seeds on barren land, something occurred to me.  Those brave souls like Buechner, Lamott, Taylor, Norris, O’Donohue, and many others who came before and after them make visible for us what is otherwise invisible.  Things like the flutter of angels’ wings behind an oak tree whose leaves are set ablaze by the sinking sun.

For us, these courageous ones who use urim and thummim to see beyond the substance of things unseen all the way through to the true essence of creation and being itself are creative mystics.  They use their tools – pen and paper, computer, typewriter, brush and easel, score paper – and open a door to the place where dreams are birthed from the tehom.

They are like the great scientists who challenge us to imagine that the impossible is possible and that hope is more than ephemeral.  Grabbing us gently by the shoulders and leading us over to peer down into life itself through their microscope or out through their telescope where the heavens expand and Browning’s reach exceeds his grasp, they show us.

“Do you see it?” they ask us.

“No.  What is it?” we say.

“There!  Look there.  You’re looking right at it, but not seeing it.”

And then suddenly we gasp as it becomes visible.  Our eyes wide open followed by a smile so vast that it almost hurts our face.  It comes into focus for the first time.  The sacred.  The mystery.  The burning bush that is engulfed in flames, but not consumed.  And silently we remove our shoes and weep.

 

* Quotes are from Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner