Category Archives: Thoughts

Restorative justice

A few weeks ago I got to visit our local jail. Some of you may not be aware, I work for a newspaper and cover the cops and court beat, so I drove out to do a story on inmate work programs. In our particular county, some inmates spend time outside, growing food for the entire jail population.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found was much more lovely than I imagined. A greenhouse holds rows and rows of pots stacked on top of each other with green lettuce leaves in various stages of growth. Other plants line the edges –  peppers, tomatoes, and golden potatoes sticking out of the dirt.

A second greenhouse is overflowing with flowers donated from Wal-Mart – ones near death, need some extra care to pull through. The inmates water them and nurse the plants back to health when possible, repotting and eventually donating creative arrangements to nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and Parents of Murdered Children.

It all sounded neat when described by the corrections lieutenant, but I wasn’t sure whether the inmates would be as enthusiastic. I was wrong.

Two women, clothed in orange jumpsuits met with me at a picnic table and described how much they loved their work. They loved getting their hands in the dirt, seeing their work grow from tiny seeds to green sprouts poking out of the earth, to full leaves ready for harvest.

Many of the women come into the jail with drug problems, they said, and working outside teaches them how to live sober in the world again, noticing things they never noticed before – how blue the sky is, how bright are all the colors our world is painted in.

Sitting there listening to them, it occurred to me that this is what justice looks like in all its intended beauty.

In Christian circles, people sometimes talk about God being loving and God being just, as if they are two separate things. As if, despite the way our savior came in peace and laid down his life for us all, our God would still like to see the world burn.

It’s an understandable perspective from some Bible passages, certainly. But I think the Biblical authors glimpsed the Lord most clearly when they wrote of peace and restorative justice, beating swords into plowshares.

After Amos announces the destruction of Israel, he shortly changes the tune, and the Lord speaks,

“I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine; and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them.”

Everywhere in the prophets, after fierce judgment comes all this beauty. Isaiah writes:

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.”

The women at the jail didn’t say any of this to me, of course, didn’t talk about God at all. But all the same, perhaps he meant them to give me a living picture.

This is justice rolling down, when God wrests away the things we’ve enslaved ourselves to – idols of jealousy, hatred, fear and pride. It might hurt for a moment, breaking the addiction, but God is leading us into a garden, bursting with sweet blossoms and verdant leaves. We’ll remember the color of the sky again and the grace of working the earth with our hands. This is justice.

Divine Melancholy & Divine Joy

sea

Melancholy has been my friend, since childhood. I am drawn to grey seascapes and misty mornings. Sad endings to books and movies often resonate more than happy ones.

An exchange from one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who (yes, I am that nerdy) sums up my natural feelings quite well when Sally Sparrow says:

I love old things. They make me feel sad.
Kathy: What’s good about sad?
Sally: It’s happy for deep people.

I would argue, even, that there is a Divine Melancholy that comes from seeing the deep truth of our world. Our wide, great earth is irreparably broken. We have been irreconcilably cut off from our Creator, the source of all love.

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2017: Devotion

What I love about winter in the north is the way the backdrop of snow and cold highlights every hidden beauty. Visiting my parents’ house, I took a walk in the woods I grew up playing in and stopped at everything that caught my eye – berries, bright red like the world’s own Christmas ornaments, thorn bushes with green and purple branches branches bound together,  rich brown stripes on mushrooms growing like shelves on fallen trees. Even in the cold, dead winter, there is enough small grace to take the breath away.

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six mile cypress

“What are you afraid of?” he asked me, as we walked a boardwalk across a northern portion of the Everglades. The swamp was still, trees rising out of solid green algae. He told me the water is moving, slowly, slowly, even if we can’t see it. Otherwise, we’d be swarmed by mosquitoes.

I said the only thing I could think of, growing old and feeling like I’ve never done anything worthwhile.

“So it’s like a big existential thing?” he asked, and I said yes, I guess.

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Antidote to wind-chasing

Adulthood is a rhythm I’m trying to work out, and there are days it feels like a song hummed on some spring morning and other days it grinds inside my ears. With my first grown-up job, I am reminded how much of life is repetitious—I drink my coffee, go to work, come home, eat dinner, pack a lunch for tomorrow, go to sleep and restart again. Grocery shopping and laundry replay week after week.

Then in the news I hear of all the ways and places the world has split open to bleed. Our black brothers killed, attacks on police, Baghdad bombed, crowds mowed down by a truck in Nice. Bloody summer once again.

What can I do? My daily routine is shabby at best.

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Moving Thoughts

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It is always when you’re about to leave a place that it starts to seem the most lovely, and everything you’ve taken for granted suddenly squeezes your heart so you know what you’re about to lose.

I’ve never felt like Iowa is quite where I belong, although I can’t say that is objectively true so much as that I have a tendency to cast myself as an outsider in my own life. I’ve been trying to own up to that habit. At some point, we all have to take responsibility for ourselves. Whatever has happened to us and whatever we think or feel, we have the choice of how to respond to it.

Everyone who gets to adulthood is a bit frayed in spots, I think, a little cracked around the edges, or deeper still. Perhaps from real tragedy or simply careless words spoken to us as children that burnt our fragile skin, and the scars became the narrative we walked our whole life through.

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Incarnate Words

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post pondering how God speaks. It’s still a topic I find endlessly fascinating, and fairly recently, I read Frederick Buechner’s memoir The Sacred Journey, where he says,

“If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks. Someone we love dies, say. Some unforeseen act of kindness or cruelty touches the heart or makes the blood run cold. We fail a friend, or a friend fails us, and we are appalled at the capacity we all of us have for estranging the very people in our lives we need the most. Or maybe nothing extraordinary happens at all—just one day following another, helter-skelter, in the manner of days. We sleep and dream. We wake. We work. We remember and forget. We have fun and are depressed. And into the thick of it, or out of the thick of it, at moments of even the most humdrum of our days, God speaks.”

This sounds quite nice, and is certainly something I would like to believe—that God speaks and is present in all things, but I would be the first to admit that in my own life, I rarely sense it. What does it really mean to say that God speaks?

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in praise of liturgy

Earlier this year, I felt as if my heart and head both broke open, and everything of myself fell out. People told me I should trust in God, cry out to God. But I didn’t have much to say to Him. There was nothing I wanted. I had no plans or dreams to seek wisdom about. And while I knew I had things to be grateful for, there was nothing I particularly felt like giving thanks for.

Then I discovered liturgical prayer. In his book Water To Wine, Brian Zahnd lays out the liturgy he prays each morning, and it’s been extraordinarily helpful to me. Zahnd says this about prayer:

“When it comes to spiritual formation, we are what we pray. Without wise input that comes from outside ourselves, we will never change. We will just keep praying what we already are. A selfish person prays selfish prayers. An angry person prays angry prayers. A greedy person prays greedy prayers. A manipulative person prays manipulative prayers. Nothing changes.”

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Empty God, in the desert

Did you know, Lord, that you could feel this – emptied, depleted in the wilderness?

Does the voice of the tempter sound just like your own, insisting, if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread. Do you stretch a hand toward them, trembling, wondering if you can fill yourself and end this hollow torture?

Do you remember that other voice, booming as you rose from the glistening Jordan, skin dripping wet, when the Spirit descended dove-like upon you, and your Father claimed you as his own?

Then that same Spirit drove you into the desert; you wandered forty days and nights. Did you know this world you gave life to could blister your feet and turn a blind eye, deaf to all your needs? Can you hear your Father in these dry stones, or do you perceive only silent, cloudless sky?

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Happy birthday, Vincent

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“What am I in the eyes of most people – a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person – somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short, the lowest of the low.

All right, then – even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.

That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love, in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.”

Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven toward these things with an irresistible momentum.” (Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh, 21 July 1882).

The more I read about Van Gogh, the more I find in him a kindred soul. Today, I also find in him a challenge to keep seeking, keep searching; despite many rejections throughout his life, Van Gogh did not reject himself, but sought constantly after beauty in the world and in his own soul.

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