Life, such as it is

Life, such as it is

image

Photo source: Guinea Pig Zone

Life has not been kind lately, and most days I honestly feel like every aspect of my life is an accelerated program for professional development for pastoral care.  It’s like job training via sadists, it’s &%$#ing ridiculous at this point.

Seriously.  &%$#ing.  Ridiculous.

And every day it’s some new thing — something on Facebook, an e-mail, something happening outside my door.  I can’t discuss any of it here, but it’s quite a list of people coming to me for random horrible things that also happen to be on my life experience résumé.

Really, God?!?!?!  Really?!?!?!?!

News flash: the whole “pastoral care” thing?  I’m not getting paid for this.  And I’m not putting myself out there as the random emotional dumping ground for the universe — it just happens that (when my best friends aren’t dropping dead) very many close long-time friends are coming to me for counsel…all at once.

image

I don’t get a break from this, ever, except when I am at church, in church, actively worshipping or praying.

I love that the Roman Catholic church is OPEN 7 DAYS for prayer and worship, because guess what? I can’t “schedule” or “save up” my need to find a sacred space for prayer and worship for a specific hour a week on Sundays. Thank God a million times over for morning mass.

Add sweltering muggy heat on top of it all.

Sunday night I was struck by my life and that I can’t believe I ever considered anything but ministry.

I am overwhelmed. Tomorrow I am taking a sanity day.

Advertisements
Very hard work indeed

Very hard work indeed

Found this in my Facebook feed from a site called Guinea Pig Zone.  Had to post this, it’s too funny not to.

image

On a more serious note, my childhood best friend’s funeral was yesterday, and I was horrified to find out…after the service…and after we’d shoveled dirt on her coffin?  Her father had actually asked me to give a eulogy BUT I NEVER GOT THE MESSAGE!!!

If there was a way to make my day worse, that was it — realizing I’d missed the chance to greatly honor my friend because Facebook ate the private message.

So…I’m working on “what I would have said.”  It won’t be the same, but you don’t get a “do-over” on funerals.

Blessings — VKS

Remembrances

Remembrances

image

Best friends, L to R: Jenni Carstensen Pavia, Jenn White Davidson, Val Starkgraf, Laurie White

There is a photograph — and we all have one somewhere — that speaks volumes about my life and friendship as a young person. Granted, there is a story this photograph does not tell about all my very deep friendships with various teachers, but if you want to boil down who my very best friends were in junior high and the first few years of high school, this is it. Left-to-right we are Jenni Carstensen Pavia, Jenn White Davidson, Val Starkgraf (me), and Laurie White.

This was taken in June 1995, on the day of our junior high school graduation in 9th grade (our school was 7-8-9, not 6-7-8). I had, of course, been crying for days. For so many reasons, Sequoia Junior High School was my “safe” place for three years. It was a real community with amazing teachers who really, really, really cared. I was one of the favorites of many for various reasons (the page-long letters in my 9th grade yearbook speak well to this — I had more teacher signers that year than students!). But as far as friends my own age? This was the group. I don’t remember who Laurie had for homeroom, but Jenn, Jenni and I had Vicki Guleserian, so we’d known each other from the very first day of 7th grade.

I’m being — essentially — held up and surrounded by my best friends. That’s what always gets me about this picture: art imitating life. Strong as I am, I rely much on my friends (as they rely on me) for support.

Given that we moved so much over so many states and schools until I was twelve, arguably, this set was the closest thing I’ll ever have to “childhood” friends.

We’ve mostly kept in touch. Jenni and I are members of the same church, I’ve seen Jenn a few times since high school, I would get together with Laurie when I could (I was living out-of-area for awhile, then she was living out-of-area when I moved back in 2011). We were both in-area again after she moved back from Salinas a little over a month ago. Getting together was high on my list.

Apparently we’ll be getting together on Wednesday, under about the worst terms possible.

She was twelve days older than me. Thirty-three year-olds aren’t supposed to die, that’s not how the world is supposed to work.

Apparently the world didn’t get that memo.

Of the three of us, I’m the only one in this photo — besides Laurie — who can make it to her funeral on Wednesday. That’s killing me — especially since she and Jenni were inseparable BFFs for so many years — but at least Jenn (who now lives in Maine) got to see her the Saturday before she died (and died very suddenly — none of us even knew she was sick — viral meningitis, MRSA, encephalitis…nasty business, headache and disoriented Wednesday, dead Friday).

I still generally don’t have words for this, I just don’t.

Can there be words for this?

I’m not sure there can be.

We didn’t share the same cosmological worldview, that’s been bothering me for a lot of different reasons. I know what I think, but what to say about that that? Is there ever a time to have that conversation, and what should I say about it? Still thinking about that.

I went onto Facebook and pulled the photograph that was used in her obituary. Yes, she went to zookeeper school, but she didn’t love the cute/fluffy animals most people love — she loved the reptiles.

It was just who she was — a girl who loved hugging alligators (though, to be fair, she did love some cute/fluffy animals, like her dogs).

This photo speaks volumes about much of what my friend loved best. She was — and is — loved by so many. There aren’t words for the hole she will leave in my life. She was one of the kindest and sweetest people any who knew her had ever know — you can’t ever “replace” a person like that.

Her Obituary:

image

Laurie Rae White...girl with gator, because, why not?

Laurie Rae White (1980 – 2013)
Obituary

April 14, 1980 – July 26, 2013 Laurie Rae White passed away on Friday, July 26, after a brief illness. Laurie was born in Mission Hills, Calif., on April 14, 1980, to Karen and Gary White. She was their only child. The White family moved to Simi Valley in 1985.

Laurie went through the Simi Valley schools, graduating in 1998 from Simi Valley High School. She graduated from the Exotic Animal Training and Management program at Moorpark College in 2006. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology at CSUN in 2009. She earned her master’s degree in education at Claremont Graduate University this past May. She was a biology teacher by trade, working this past year at Soledad High School in Monterey County. She was hoping to teach closer to home this year. In addition to being a teacher, Laurie was an excellent musician, a writer, an avid reader, a good artist, and a local actress, appearing in musicals at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center for two years.

She is survived by parents, Gary and Karen White of Simi Valley; grandparents, Ben and Trudy Bronwein of Santa Clarita; uncle, Elliot Bronwein of Santa Clarita; aunt, Bonnie Becker (Gary) of Moorpark; and aunt, Rae White of North Hills.

Laurie’s funeral will be held on Wednesday, August 7, at 3 p.m. at Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Simi Valley. In lieu of sending flowers, please donate to your favorite charity.

I’m not sure I’m ready for Wednesday. I’m not sure I can be ready for Wednesday. I’m not sure I will ever be ready for Wednesday…but Wednesday is coming, whether I like it or not.

Blessings — VKS

Post-script — One of the things that has marked my life is deep and profound loss on a lot of levels. I try not to live with regrets, and I know I’ve written in this post from last April about the idea that we need to live life as if we might never see those we love again — that we should make sure they know they are loved. Please, may the words of how much you love your friends and family always be your parting words. You will never regret this. — VKS

On life, glacial evangelism, and a Reblog: “Just Be…Normal”

On life, glacial evangelism, and a Reblog: “Just Be…Normal”

“Life isn’t always about being ‘out there,’ always with a smile on our faces and willing to give a measured account of Christ’s death and resurrection in fine-print detail.  Sometimes life is about — well, everyday life.  And just being ourselves — normal people — is enough to bring hope where it’s needed.”
— Tsh Oxenreider Simple Mom

I’m a born writer, and I love to write, but I am all too familiar with all life changing in an instant.  My own world started going down in flames a week ago Friday, but it turned into a raging inferno last Thursday afternoon.  It was just after four, I’d been passing the afternoon in a completely mundane way — my netbook has some “special” qualities (e.g., the screen only works when you hold it tilted 45° facing the keys and typing blind, the battery is on its way out and won’t hold a charge, and it won’t pick up the weak WiFi signal in the house because its antenna isn’t as sensitive as my NOOK tablet), so because of this it hadn’t been online for awhile…thus when I turned it on over visiting my mother and niece for lunch, it started updating everything.

Everything.

So much for my planned job search.

I made myself a cup of tea around four, was going to drink that and head home.  While I was waiting for it to cool, I had my USB cables and was going to move picture files of baby guinea pigs off my phone and onto the other two computers to upload to Facebook (easy, something to be done over a cup of tea).

Things didn’t work out that way.

When I pulled out my phone (still silenced from when I pit it on Silent Mode for the morning’s Bible Study class), I found text messages and missed calls about an emergency unfolding back home.

Dumped a perfect and beautiful cup of too-hot tea down the sink (I’m pretty sure tea — not blood — flows through my veins).  I am still sorry about this.

image

Raced home the five or so blocks to take my place in the unfolding nightmare as “support staff” to the famiily I live with (and have lived with for the past two years).  Without much for details, suffice it to say that my role is somewhat one of an embedded missionary, kind of like Mary Poppins/care pastor in a family with three small children.  I love them all, they are family.

The advantage in this situation is that I am cool in crisis, have some background how to navigate what is going on (it’s on my résumé), and an already an established/stable/normal presence in this household.  “Miss Val’s in-charge” brings no drama, and Miss Val will probably take you on an adventure.

But the disadvantage is that my own life is now in the middle of a very big mess (prayers appreciated if you are so-inclined), which has put my own ability to write and every single plan and “To Do” List on hold.

So my own life and writing are probably somewhat on-hold at present, and I am going to have to let the wise and inspiring words of others carry me — and you, perhaps — for a little while until I know what’s what.

But I’m still reading and still thinking, still an absolute prayer warrior for intercession in the lives of all I love so dearly.

That said, the post I’m reblogging here with a link really resonated with me when I read it this morning . Now, you’ve heard of “elevator pitch” evangelism? That’s the speed-talking-close-the-deal-to-the-point-why-you-need-Jesus.

And I don’t think it works.

My evangelism style — especially with the Jonahs and burned-by-churchy-hypocrites God sends my way (I haven’t met an Ethiopian eunuch yet) — is more along the lines of “glacial evangelism.”

Because glaciers move very, very, very slowly…but have a profound and deep impact on everything in their path.

image

Yes, St. Val knows this is the proper cultural reference

My personal philosophy is that the world does not need another Jesus freak who truly is a freak — no knowledge of how life in a secular society works, profoundly lacking social skills, not merely intolerant but downright hostile, and so ridiculously fake and polished as to be grating and abrasive. So many of the broken people God sends me have been burned by just such people.

What I am advocating is not a policy of being soft on Jesus in the least. The truth is that if you are truly a Christian, truly empowered by the Holy Spirit, your life will be radically different starting with the way you think and view the world. That’s not to say you will be a socially inept separatist, rejecting the world wholly…it just means you will be a little more mindful of your choices, values, how you spend your time, and how you live your life.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t still be a normal person.

Because the truth of the matter is, unless you are a “real” person of character and integrity, no one in the world is going to care to listen to what you say anyway. The truth about evangelism is that if you can make a friend, you can “do evangelism,” because the entire process is profoundly relational.

Which is why I think the whole crusade model and elevator pitch evangelism is garbage: no follow-through.

Because life in-Christ, a life of discipleship isn’t about “say the thing, pray the prayer — *poof* — #HolySpirit!!! No, there is much more to living a life of Christian Discipleship not covered in any ither way but…living a life of Christian Discipleship. That really is the beginning and end of it. And it may draw ire to say I’m soft on ire for saying it, but by no means am I insinuating that the only thing necessary for Christian evangelism is to be a nice person and hope people notice. Sometimes the everyday nitty-gritty details of what effective witnessing requires is the street cred of normalcy and just being ourselves (in-Christ) to witness that Christianity isn’t something open for application only to supersaint separatists.

Submitted for your consideration: (in)courage — Just Be…Normal

Blessings for your Sunday (so glad it’s Sunday, I really need to spend some time with my church family in all that swirls!!!) — VKS

Voting down “real” Jesus

Voting down “real” Jesus

image

The Getty Center, taken 30 May 2012

Excerpted from, why yes, a letter to a friend, written 3 June 2013…

Thought of you a lot while waiting for the 761 to the Getty yesterday.  The question has been raised by various people at various times lately, and specifically in a small group study I attended last week: Which is preferable, “real” flesh & blood Jesus, or the Holy Spirit?

I always have the “wrong” answer.  I always vote down Jesus, well “real” Jesus.

People tend to think “real” Jesus would be better, because “real” Jesus would somehow automatically be spending all his time with just them.  That’s even worse, because if Jesus is with me, there are billions of people other than me in the world that he is NOT helping.

That’s no good — that’s terrible in-fact.

I can’t be “for” that.

Because one of the best things about God is that we do not merely have a Jesus who can help us as he has time to help (if something of our life or faith happens to catch his attention). We have the Holy Spirit — a helper just like Christ — to be with us (each and every one of us) always.

And what I am reminded of most Sundays is that — even though I love Jesus very, very, very much…I don’t want who I am in-Christ to be merely about what I receive from Jesus. What I was reminded of in my conversations with various saints throughout the weekend (especially the people who actually asked with love and attention how I was doing and were ready for more than a one or two word answer), is that life in Christ — which is life in the Spirit — is not just a life where we receive something from Christ,

it is a life where we receive from the Spirit in such a way that God is no longer an external God who has to reach out and touch, but an internal presence free to work from within: to love us, and to work through us to love others in a beautiful and powerful way. The Spirit also helps us to love each other.

That’s a beautiful thing.

image

And it’s in those quiet moments — when there are tears without words and hugs that don’t let go — that I am reminded of just how great and beautiful a grace it is to have Christ’s love, by the Spirit, to each other, through us.

Love to you my friend. I’ve lost count at this point the line-itemed list of things I should be praying about for you…but I’ve got the big things. I’m trusting the Spirit to chink the cracks on my prayers for you my friend. The point of intercessory prayer isn’t the list or the words, but the love behind the words.

We were talking about prayer in Sunday School class yesterday, and I commented that my own life is always full of situations that need a lot of prayer because God sends me places no one else is willing to go (because he knows I will go without asking a bunch of questions about what will happen or what’s in it for me). It’s about having the kind of faith to know to jump when you can’t see a pool or water in the pool because you know that with God there is a pool and there is water in the pool, even when you don’t know how far you’re going to fall before you find it.

I call it faith, but a lot of people call it stupid.

Love to you, and may God’s peace, love, hope, and comfort be with you strongly in all things this day. Blessings, love, and hugs to you my friend.

[The credit for the amazingly beautiful icon, “The Visitation” was too long to be a caption for that image, but it was so amazing and inspiring I need to put credit where credit is due: http://3acres.blogspot.com/2010/04/icon-update-iv-visitation-is-finished.html]

A double portion?

A double portion?

image

I don’t know if you’ve ever had one of those phone conversations where you can hear the tears, the pain, the fact that the person on the other end of the phone is going to go cry when this conversation is over.

I have.

The worst is when you know that something you said in your own pain is what is causing the tears and the frustration on the other end of the line.

As this is a pretty public domain, I dare not say too much that might be midconstrued as instability in any way, but it’s been a hellishly rough year thus far.  Lose your car, your job, your freedom, your independence, your future, and your right arm (along with half a pizza) in a puff of airbag dust sometime, it isn’t the best way to spend an afternoon.

But then, really, any afternoon that begins with a car crash, followed by screaming in pain in Spanish like a crazy woman while in the middle of a busy intersection, all in your pajamas in-front of two totaled cars?  That afternoon probably isn’t going to end well.

(And the pizza thing is probably going to tick me off forever)

I love life, I just don’t happen to love my life right now.

I remarked variously that the one thing I’m looking forward to the most about heaven is that I won’t have to move anymore.  I tell you what, the constant moving rented rooms can bring has really made me a lot softer on the Israelites who left Egypt, took one look at their new life, and decided to cop the “This is insane, let’s go back to Egypt!” attitude.  I get it — better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.

I just don’t have what it takes to Lone Ranger it through life, but there are various dear saints in my life among my friends who want St. Val to make it. I count them dear and precious and belovèd, even as I can’t think as well of myself as they do.
image

For more than half my life, the words of a dear friend have helped drive me…tearful, frustrated, “Don’t you get it, please don’t do this” kind of words and haunt me still. Her words were what I was being completely selfish, and that if I didn’t want my life, to give it to her.

I’ve long been mindful of that conversation, and challenged by it.

But here’s the thing…

Last year I found out that friend died over ten years ago (which explains a lot). That news sent me for a loop, because it is at that point when “eternally separated from God” starts to mean something very, very, very dark.

A similar level of desperation that led to the conversation where my friend spoke those words seventeen years ago slsmmed me hard last Friday afternoon. And what occurs to me this morning is that my friend is not here to speak those desperate words to me now…or ever…because she is gone.

I can’t give her my life, she is gone…forever.

Which poses an interesting question — one for which I don’t actually have an answer:

Am I released from my obligation of giving my life to her because she is gone, or am I now bound with a double-portion of embracing life/living/giving/serving/loving because she can no longer carry her own torch?

I have no answers to this.

Her life was hard-fought and hard-lived, very broken, very lonely…but not without love and joy. A different friend remarked to me back in 2009 (when everything about my life blew up when the economy melted down) that one of the things that amazed her most about me was that — in-spite of everything — I could still love.

I think my very much missed, gone forever friend was the one who taught me how that could work: what does it look like to live a life with room for love when — by all rights — all capacity for love in your soul should have been beaten out of you years ago?

Do I now hold a cup full of a double portion of life — my own, plus the life she didn’t get to finish?

I am thinking about this…

Love and light

Love and light

image

Another excerpt from a letter to a friend…

—–

The root of so much that has so long been so broken in my own self is not that I rarely expend much time or energy in my own direction, it’s that as much as I deeply love so many, I just don’t have a place to love myself. I mean, surely I’m no longer knocking on death’s door begging to be let in (as I did for twelve years), but I also know that I’m not “fixed” and that this is the piece of myself that is far from “recovered,” and is the root of every ugly thing. It’s one of the horrendous things in that’s in The Hall Closet [a reference to My Heart: Christ’s Home], but you know that.
image

But the thing is, my brain is just…broken. I only apply this standard to myself, but I absolutely equate “utility” and “worth.” I can argue the theological and ontological and everything else logical arguments for why that isn’t a valid perspective…for anyone else. I can’t make any of it stick for me. And it’s not just the absence of self-love, it’s the presence of self-loathing. And like I said…I can parse through the head knowledge beautifully, but I can’t make it stick on the soul level.

I can’t fix that, because in that case the problem is within. Only God can fix that one.

There’s a lot more to all of this on a lot of levels. I hear your words — as I have heard your words on multiple occasions — about me taking care of me. I don’t know how to do that, I just don’t. I don’t even know enough to know the pieces I’m missing to try to figure out what that would even look like without being off-balance.

image

I generally love without expectation — e.g., I am not your friend because I’m trying to earn your love or friendship (I am your friend because I just love you). And I don’t work that way because I’ve spent too much time around miserable people who do. If a person appreciates my love or kindness, and expresses that appreciation in love or kindness in return, I am happy…but I am not happy BECAUSE they were kind to me, I am happy because they were able to receive my love. And even then it’s not on a level of “I am an acceptable person because my love was found to be acceptable by this person,” no. I am happy because the person I love was blessed by the love I intended to bless them. And it isn’t that I somehow did well for sending that love, but merely joy that love itself (not my part in it) “won” and my friend was blessed. When I play with my dear baby niece, my goal is to engage her (and if possible, delight her because it’s so sweet when she laughs). It’s not about my aim to be perceived to be delightful, it’s about spreading love and joy. I am still going to love her if she doesn’t delight in my presence.

image

You know it makes me sad that there are people in my life whom I love dearly but who cannot receive or accept my love. It took a long time to get to the place of realizing that their reaction didn’t change the reality of who I am — I am not less because they cannot receive my love or love me. But that doesn’t stop me from weeping (often to God). Yes, I am sad that they do not love me and cannot receive my love, but only a little — because I know this isn’t how life was meant to be, broken families are not part of God’s best plan. What sets me to weeping and prayer is that love isn’t winning the day.

That’s really it.

Because I am a broken person, I see my brokenness, and I do not just not love what is broken within me, I hate it. And I absolutely live with (and live by) this question: “How can I live this day to bless others?” I’m still the same parts beautiful and wretchedly broken I was before I woke up and before I decided to be proactive about loving others, but whether love is accepted or reciprocated, love itself makes the world a less-broken place.

And isn’t that, essentially, one pretty big take-home point of the gospel?

I do take time to take care of me a little, and I don’t derive self-worth or merit or acceptance from my love and service. I just happen to have a cazy-huge servant’s heart. I really do love Merton’s metaphor of a crystal:

image

When a ray of light strikes a crystal, it gives a new quality to the crystal. And when God’s infinitely disinterested love plays upon a human soul, the same kind of thing takes place. And that is the life called sanctifying grace.

The soul of a man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.

So the natural goodness of man, his capacity for love which must always be in some sense selfish if it remains in the natural order, becomes transfigured and transformed when the Love of God shines in it. What happens when a man loses himself completely in the Divine Life within him? This perfection is only for those who are called the saints — for those rather who are the saints and who live in the light of God alone.

— Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Even before I read all of the various brilliant things Merton had to say on the subject, I felt that the best reflection of who God is through me is in my love and service of others. I love to love and I serve to serve because I am grateful that I CAN love and that I CAN serve. I seriously scrutinize anything that detracts from that, even if that “something” happens to be me.