Nothing says Happy New Year in Aspen like, well…six below zero. You Southerners who come to escape the heat in July don’t know how good you’ve got it in January!
As I reflect back on 2014 I feel doubly blessed. Not only was it a great year but it was all the sweeter because 2013 stunk so bad. You win some you lose some! Some years are just like that, aren’t they? They’re like a whole string of six-below-zero days. Parents take ill, jobs are unstable, kids struggle, knees get blown out, beloved pets die, the pipes burst, credit cards get stolen…and that’s just January!
Add the wind chill and it can feel like minus 67! You know what I’m talking about: low-grade stress at work, those extra holiday pounds that never went away, flu, insomnia, freakin’ perimenopause (just sayin’). You know: wind chill.
Some days all you can do is promise to just show up and try not to be a jerk. But then, just like a beach vacation in winter, the promise of the New Year is sweet and sure and oh-so-needed. It’s like a shiny new toy or a steaming cup of coffee when you’re suuuuper tired.
Despite familiar songs to the contrary, friends, you can absolutely forget auld lang syne. You can say goodbye to sadness and grief and disappointment and heartache and unrealized goals, and hurts and anything else that has made your precious hearts ache this past year. Sit on it, reflect on it, brood about it, talk about it till you’re sick of hearing your own voice….and then for God’s sake let it go. Because we cannot accept all the goodness and blessings that await if we are chock full of all the stuff we don’t want more of.
In the Old Testament there’s a story about a great king named Hezekiah, whose troops were slaughtered and his kingdom near ruins thanks to the former King of Assyria. All that remained was a bunch of ragtag soldiers and a patch of desert. But Hezekiah gathered the few (the proud) before him and said something remarkable. He told his troops to send up a prayer for what little they had left. In the midst of near utter defeat, when everyone else seemed to have abandoned him, Hezekiah prayed for God’s favor on what little they had. I guess I find this remarkable because in the middle of despair it’s easy to believe God has left the building, when in fact, God is still here. Waiting. Patiently. Always so patiently.
Hezekiah sends up his prayer and next thing you know God made him prosper “in all he set out to do.” Bam! Hezekiah didn’t dwell on his losses (though they were many). Holding on to old hurts means less room for the good stuff to come in. We have to empty our pitiful selves out and make room for God to fill us right back up.
So in this shiny new year, forget those six-below-zero days. Let your mind wander to the glorious 70s! Recall that day or week or…maybe you were lucky enough to have a whole month!…when the sun shined a little brighter. Send up a prayer for what you have, for even just that one day where the sun shone on your gorgeous face, and then know there is more of that just waiting for you in the new year.
So it begins.
If you had asked me eight months ago not if but where I would be attending seminary I would have laughed in your face. No offense; it’s just that the thought had quite literally NEVER occurred to me. Until it did. And then the thought would not release itself from my brain or my heart and I found myself tentatively asking my husband one day, what would you think if…
Isn’t that the way big things always begin? With some ridiculously outlandish idea that turns into your actual honest to goodness life?
Now, if you’re wondering how a full-time working mom of three just casually goes back to get her Masters of Divinity, let me assure you there are no dorms or cross country moves involved. For starters, living on campus and romping around with frat boys is mostly not the vision I have for my 50 year-old self, nor one that any sane college coed would want!
So this is my classroom.
Most of the work my classmates and I do is online and then we get the privilege and pleasure of seeing each other three times a year on campus, where we drink beer and talk about the meaning of life just like regular college kids.
So, after weeks of online discussion boards, misunderstood posts, obscure assignments, and reading far too much theological interpretation without the benefit of, well…interpretation, I finally met my 22 online classmates in person. And can I just say: they do not disappoint. They are in this thing heart and soul, not to mention piercings and tattoos.
We hail from all over the U.S., from a variety of denominations, and our reasons for studying theology are as diverse as our political leanings and the ages on our driver’s licenses. But these are people ready to build bridges across those divides. There’s a common thread of humanity, of vision for a brighter future, of hope that, together, we can and will heal the heart of a broken world.
It’s not easy. The first quarter so far has expanded my brain (which likely explains all the headaches) with the likes of David Hume, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Frederick Schleiermacher (try saying that three times fast) and a host of other brilliant minds; and challenged the way I look at people and things like systemic oppression, racial and socio-economic privilege, and LGBTQ justice. You know — a whole lot of things I have been, for the most part, happily in the dark about.
We are not residential students and not solely online so ours is called the Journey. It’s fitting. And together we will find our way.
Life is not meant to be experienced in a vacuum. And even though I was ready to be home which means typing away online rather than having deep discussions in person, I am already looking forward to sharing the same breathing space with my classmates again soon.
As for you — some day you may find yourself in need of a prayer; desperate for peace as you witness the end of life of a dearest; sitting in a pew looking for words of inspiration; looking for insights from a teacher; or simply needing to hold the hand of a kind military chaplain who just gets it. And when that happens, I pray you’ll be lucky enough to be looking into the face of one of these beautiful souls.
So be it.
What strikes me most about homelessness in Aspen is that a.) it exists at all and b.) most school children can list all of the homeless by name or at least by identifying characteristics. Think about that for a moment. Our town is so small and so privileged and we have so few people suffering from true homelessness that our children can tell you about each one.
And you don’t have to live in a fancy-pants neighborhood to call yourself privileged; any small town kid has probably had the same experience. Because whatever your definition of privilege is let’s face it: having a roof over your head and food to eat is tops on the list.
So when our group of 19 showed up on Skid Row in Los Angeles on our last day of “Surf and Serve” we were as prepared as any small town privileged group could be to come face to face with the thousands of homeless living on the streets in a roughly six square block area. Which is to say… not at all.
I’m ok telling you that the night before our visit I was just a teensy bit anxious. The images I’d seen over the years of this place didn’t exactly look welcoming and I was about to drive 15 teenagers into the “Devil’s Den” as it has been called. Not gonna lie — knowing the staff at Union Rescue Mission would be waiting for us in a secured parking lot and escorting us directly to the secured office made me breathe easier. I would need that period of adjustment before my mind could take in the massive sea of desperation on the other side.
I’ve heard varying accounts but the truth lies somewhere in this startling fact: each night in L.A. somewhere between 58,000 and 90,000 people are homeless. Only two cities are “home” to more homeless than Los Angeles: New York City sits at the number two spot in the world, and Manila, Philippines, with more than 2 million living in slums, is number one. How is this even possible? It doesn’t get better. In fact, people, the United States of America has ELEVEN of the top 25 cities with extremely high homeless populations according the U.N. Have mercy.
To say that some of these people choose homelessness is probably accurate, inasmuch as a person in his right mind chooses to live on a sidewalk where people regularly defecate and shoot up. Are some abusing the system by using their welfare checks to buy drugs? Sure. But others use the gift of those monthly checks to buy a tent, shop at Goodwill for clean underwear and buy a hot meal at McDonald’s rather than sit on a corner begging for your pocket change. God bless.
I know you have intelligent, worldly minds, my friends, and you can imagine all by yourselves the sights and sounds and, yes, even the suffocating smells of Skid Row, so I won’t bother to illustrate the depths of utter despair we saw on the faces of these people. Instead, what I want you to know is this: on every corner there is love.
There are activists, outreach workers, patrol officers, and volunteers aplenty, all working to bring a little joy into the lives of people who have forgotten what joy is, if, in fact, they ever knew. At Union Rescue Mission alone there are 600 homeless people in transition, living temporarily or long-term in the five-story building. Close to 200 staff members make it possible for them to get everything from food and clothing, to financial counseling and spiritual support. Police are not only present, they are compassionate and involved. Everyone, it seems, wants the best. Including the homeless themselves.
One gentleman, waiting patiently in the hour-long line for his nearly melted ice cream, wears a shirt that reads Justice is what love looks like in public.
Please let us get this one thing right. Let us give them justice.
I witness an elderly woman (perhaps she is man, I can’t be sure) with near-ghoulish makeup on, her colorful scarf hiding unwashed hair and wearing an outlandish dress and tights. She sits on the cement outside the women’s shelter attempting to pull on a pair of ratty ankle boots. A blanket and tattered suitcase sit nearby. A much younger woman in a midriff and tight shorts saunters out of the shelter making a beeline for the ice cream but stops short. “You need some help, baby?” she asks the woman in a sweet southern drawl. She gives up her prime spot in the ice cream line to help another struggler.
A man waits in line for 20 minutes and when he reaches me at the front he motions to a man just ahead of him on crutches. I think he’s going to tell me the man cut in line (the theme of the day) or that he was using the crutches just to get ahead (these people learn fast that wheelchairs, elderly and disabled can get to the front of the line quickly, so there’s no shortage of canes this day.) “He needs help,” the man mouths to me. I can’t make out what he’s saying right away so he mouths I can’t speak and points to a quarter-sized hold in his throat where he has had his larynx removed. Don’t smoke, he cautions our young volunteers with a soundless laugh, then shows them the hole in his throat as if to say “or this might happen to you.” He turns back to me and points again to the man on crutches, who now reaches for a bowl from our volunteer. He needs help carrying his ice cream.
He needs help. God bless.
Justice is what love looks like in public.
There is also in this place of poverty and hardship, gratitude beyond words. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people thanked us for serving ice cream in a parking lot on a hot day; thanked us for walking in the 100 degree temps to hand out cold water bottles; thanked us for being there. They waited patiently in line, and if they grumbled to each other about the heat and the ones who cheated or cut in line, they rarely did so to us. Always polite and willing to wait “just a little longer” while our precious teens scooped ice cream and offered toppings and, yes, even sprayed on some whipped cream.
See, ice cream is a luxury that we, the privileged, can get whenever we have the craving. For them, ice cream comes only at the hands of a volunteer willing to set up a table in a hot parking lot and scoop up just a little bit of joy.