Embracing An Embodied Humanity: A Manifesto

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My body has always scared me. I have a distinct memory of laying in bed one night, my heart pounding and my palms sweating. I was probably around eight years old, and I was convinced I was dying. I had been told that my lips and hands would turn blue if I was having a heart attack, so I pulled out my trusty flashlight and handheld mirror (conveniently stored under my pillow) to check. They were pink, but I was not reassured. My heart continued to pound loudly, a sound that reverberated in my ears. My body was trying to communicate something to me, but the physical sensations it was using to do so were so foreign and unwelcome to me that I truly thought my moments were numbered.

I grew up and became a nurse, and while the fear I have of my body these days is much less irrational and out of control, the mistrust is still there. I have learned the art of repressing most messages my body tries to communicate. Hunger? Not to be trusted. I am only allowed to eat at specific times! Physical cues of deep internal emotions? Shut them down. After all, fear, anger, and even elation are unacceptable. Desire of another body? Depraved! And yet, the very faith tradition in which I was raised worships a God who put on flesh and became an embodied human being—A man who satiated his hunger with good food and flipped over tables in anger. A man who sweat with exertion and incredible pain. A man who touched women, even and especially women who were marked as scandalous by the society in which they lived. A man who wept (or more accurately, “snorted like an angry horse”) over the death of his friend. When I read about Jesus now, it is impossible for me to ignore just how deeply embodied and human he was while walking on this earth. I wonder if he was perhaps even more human than most of us living today (in a culture that does everything it possibly can to shape, cut out, and contain the human body).

It is this journey to understand my embodied humanity that has led me to wild and wonderful places in the last couple years. I have beheld a wide and mysterious diversity of bodies who have embraced, led, forgiven, and challenged me. I have also become increasingly aware of the ways in which we police and exclude others whose bodies look differently than our own. It has always been this way, hasn’t it? The embodied Jesus was ultimately crucified because he dared to embrace, eat beside, walk with, and touch the bodies of men, women, and children who did not fit in the cultural or religious tradition of his enemies. He challenged a status quo that called some bodies “good, loved by God, and holy,” and other bodies “unclean, unacceptable, unholy.” He dared to love and embrace all kinds of human bodies equally, calling out the essence of the Divine in each one. And his enemies ultimately nailed his body to a cross because of it.

There are thousands upon thousands of churches in this country who gather on Sunday mornings claiming to worship and follow this God-become-man, all the while calling some bodies “good, loved by God, and holy,” and other bodies “unclean, unacceptable, unholy.” The irony in this is becoming increasingly hard for me to ignore. We don’t know what to do with bodies that look and act differently than our own, and maybe they scare us a little. But rather than sitting next to those bodies—touching them, holding them, laughing with and learning from them—we draw lines between us and them. We ask them to conform themselves to our likeness, and if they refuse, we push them outside and slam the door behind them. We refuse to listen to them, to genuinely try to understand how their bodies are experiencing this world. And how can we honestly pretend to understand their perspective or experience if we won’t even shut up long enough to listen?!

Part of my journey toward a greater understanding of my own humanity has been awakening to the deepest parts of me I have repressed. I am more than just my mind and spirit, the parts of me I was taught to trust implicitly. I am a human body, a body that feels magnificent sensations. A body that loves deeply with her hands and cradles life to her chest. A body that experiences hunger, arousal, and gut-churning sadness. A body that laughs deep in her belly and sometimes sobs rivers of snot.

And guess what? I am a sexual being too. Frankly, the religious community I have served, loved, and been raised by over the last 15 years has never known what to do with this aspect of my humanity. In my experience, sexuality has been (and is) treated as a secret club you are not allowed to join until you enter a heterosexual, monogamous relationship sanctioned by the church with a “stamp” of approval (usually an expensive public party). If you are not in that “club,” you are expected to ignore the fact that you are a sexual being. The very few conversations surrounding sexuality that I have been invited into in a church context have all revolved around what I need to do to repress arousal, cover my body, or figure out how to join the “club” (by becoming, well, NOT single). This narrow view of sexuality reduces an embodied essence to a physical act. If this is my experience as a white, heterosexual, cisgender female (read: part of the privileged power-holding “elite”), I shudder to think the Church believes itself qualified to direct societal standards of sexuality for bodies who do not look like or experience life in the same way ours do.

I am just now embarking on a journey toward understanding the ways in which the Imago Dei—the essence of the Divine—resides in my embodied humanity. But already, this journey is opening my eyes to the exquisite beauty of bodies that do not look like my own or experience the same kinds of hurts, longings, or hopes that I do. Already, I am realizing I need to shut up and listen. I am learning that it is not my place to exclude a body without having held it, to judge a body without having experience the joys and sorrows it has lived through, to tell a body what to do or not do without having cherished and walked through fire alongside it. It is not my place to say some bodies belong and others do not. Because perhaps the one human being who could have made that distinction instead spent his years on this earth tearing down and removing every barrier and distinction that was erected with the intent to exclude. When others moved away from bodies that looked, acted, or thought differently than their own, Jesus pressed in. When the religious elite picked up stones, Jesus said “I do not condemn you.” When tradition barred some front entering the presence of the Divine, the Divine put on embodied flesh and instead entered the lives of the excluded. 

I want to follow the example of the Jesus who willingly walked away from privilege and belonging and made community with the outsiders…holding their deepest sorrows, touching their physical wounds, eating good food in their homes, and calling out the Divine essence in each of them. And to be completely candid, I no longer have any time or patience for a theology, political party, or elite club that declares the bodies of a privileged few worthy of love, protection, and belonging and all other bodies unacceptable, unwelcome, and unworthy of being seen and heard. I have come to know a God who calls my physical body—yes, the very one that has always scared me—very good. And I believe your physical body—all her joys, sorrows, and deepest longings—is very good too. Even and especially if you look and experience life differently than I do. 

Dear Dad,

I will never forget that day. We sat in an old, rusty truck and held hands, looking out across the gravestones reaching as far as our eyes could see. I’m not sure if I understood the weightiness of that moment, the fact that your life was numbered in days, not years or even months. We sat next to stories past, perhaps not considering that yours would soon join theirs. Although, maybe you were thinking about your numbered days? I was 19, and I was too distracted by concerns and questions that now feel so petty. You didn’t brush them off, though. That was the kind of dad you were…always holding my dreams and ponderings tenderly, no matter how small or silly they might have been. You wanted to go for a bike ride, but the bikes remained in the bed of the truck because your pain was too great. So we sat and talked, a memory that I now cradle as one of the most precious.

Dad, I was thinking about you a lot yesterday. I wish that I could sit next to you in the oppressive summer heat again…here, ten years later. I wish I could tell you about the questions and concerns I have now. The world feels even heavier now than it did all those years ago, and sometimes I don’t know what to do with the weight. Somehow, holding your hand made me feel less afraid to stand up tall, to fight for justice and compassion and love. I am changing, dad, and sometimes I wish I could talk to you about that too. I wonder what you might say about my shifting understanding of the world, myself, even God. I wonder what insight you might share for those of us who are sad and angry about the brokenness of this world we live in but don’t know what to do about. I suspect I know what you might say, but I wish I could sit down next to you and look into your gentle eyes while you pour forth the wisdom you always shared so generously.

Here’s what I think you would say: Live with intentionality and faithfulness where you are. You cannot carry the weight of the world, but you can help bear the weight of someone’s world. Love extravagantly. Give generously. Remember that what you see, feel, believe is not all that is. Hold tightly to the Light of the World who is always breaking into what feels at times like overwhelming darkness. 

I have a feeling we would disagree about some things now, Dad. My understanding of faith and life has shifted so much from that day we sat next to each other ten years ago. But I also know that the best parts of Today Me were deeply shaped and impacted by you. You left your handprint on my heart and life, and even the fact that I have changed so much is a credit to the way you encouraged me to be a strong and passionate woman. You taught me that the best kind of leader is a humble, hardworking servant. I hope that I will always pursue the kind of leadership that cleans toilets, sits with the outsider, picks up trash, and mostly just loves quietly and without fanfare. I hope that I will always strive to be a leader who can admit to being wrong and laugh at my shortcomings. I hope that I will always carry on your legacy of being faithful in the small things until they become the biggest things.

Dad, I wish you were still here. I wish you could hold your grandkids and spend hours mowing the pasture and take long walks while whistling from the overflow of your joy-filled heart. I wish you could meet the people I have come to love who never knew you. I wish we could still sit in cemeteries together, even though I always thought it was strange you liked those places so much. There are so many things I wish were different, but here we are, ten years later, and I don’t think you would want me to spend too much time longing for what isn’t. You would instead give me a firm hug, then say, “Ab, just show up. That’s the hardest part. The rest will follow.” 

So I’ll keep putting one foot in front of the other, holding onto memories and the rich wisdom you instilled in me so many years ago. And I’ll keep sharing stories about you with people who never had the privilege of knowing you, hoping all the while that they get a glimpse of who you were because I bear your handprint on my heart.

Love,

Ab

To All Who Feel Lost in The Dark:

Last fall, I drove a familiar stretch of highway with the radio blasting and my mind tallying to-do list items. Suddenly, a peculiarity on this route I traverse every day caught my eye: The ground of the median, typically green and well-tended, was now black and charred. A fire had claimed this small square of land too. Over the next couple of days, though, green sprouts quickly popped up between the black blades, and it didn’t take long for the signs of destruction to completely disappear. New life, after all, is stubborn and persistent in its glory.

We giggled together as we watched her baby toddle across the room. “He’s walking!” I exclaimed, marveling at how much he had grown and changed since I had last visited. I imagined my friend as a young child, struggling to care for her little siblings and wishing the kitchen cupboards greeted her with something other than emptiness. The well of beauty and goodness inside of her could not be tamed, though. I again stood in awe of the tenacity and grace she exuded, this beautiful woman who was once a young child fighting to survive. The Imago Dei, blooming unfettered in and through her: New life is stubborn and persistent in its glory.

I held his hand and stroked his brow, occasionally reading to him passages of scripture he had long ago memorized. He hadn’t spoken, to me or anyone, in more than a day or two. His breathing was still steady, though, a testament to the strong and steady cardiovascular system keeping his body alive even in spite of the cancer ravaging his body. For some reason, his difficult and labored dying reminded me of the painful contractions that usher a squalling baby into the world. My family and I sat in a vigil around him, waiting for the death contractions to cease and the mystery of new life to find him with his last breath. The waiting, lingering in the painful reality of death looming heavy, was excruciating. But, new life is stubborn and persistent in its glory.

The end of February found me suspended in darkness…weary from physical darkness, and overwhelmed by a darkness of spirit. But, as it turns out, even darkness has a purpose in new life. Scientists have discovered that plants store up essential proteins in the dark, so that when light returns, the plants have everything they need in order to grow and bloom. It seems we often avoid and flee the dark, but I wonder what essential elements we need from darkness so we can grow and thrive in the light. I decided to press into the dark, to listen to what was stirring in my spirit and scoop up what seemed essential for the journey forward. And sure enough, the snow began to melt and the sun beamed more brightly. The darkness prepares us for light, because new life is stubborn and persistent in its glory.

And so, I want to say this to you—you glorious human being perfectly crafted to embody and spill forth the persistent spark of the God-flame: What feels charred, hopeless, dead, and dark might actually be the incubation of new life. The labor process can be excruciating. The darkness can be terrifying. The charred landscape can feel hopeless. But new life is stubborn and persistent in its glory. Never cease to look for signs of budding hope…for where there is darkness, goodness is being stockpiled for growth in the light. 

Getting to know a breaking-off-the-canvas God

She is almost a teenager, but when she looked up at me with eyes hooded by fear, I wanted to scoop her up into my arms and cradle her like a newborn babe. “My brain feels crazy,” she whispered to me. She is pushing through a darkness that feels insurmountable from the other side. But then again, sometimes my darkness feels insurmountable too. She has lived more brokenness and pain in her short life than most people will experience in a lifetime. The weight she carries—the darkness, the “craziness” that overwhelms her brain—is certainly more than I bear. But in that moment, I wanted to curl up next to her and cradle our unique and individual darkness together. I wanted to say, “Ahhh, sweet girl, my brain feels crazy too.”

There are days when I crave the easy answers of my childhood, when I long for the concrete, black-and-white thinking that defined my faith for so long. It is hard to imagine now, but there was a day when I could not fathom any shade of grey in my understanding of the Divine.

That was before I watched my dad shudder his last breath.

Before I crumbled, listening to my brother wail over the loss of his best friend.

Before my dreams were shattered and a deep well of longing was left empty.

Before relationships exploded and prayers were greeted by silence.

Before I was confronted by expansive need and the deliberately chosen ignorance and greed that continue to ensure the gaping lack remains for some.

Before I smoothed the brow of little children traumatized and assaulted, many of whom will likely become the “they” that are so quickly judged and dismissed by even the most religiously pious.

That was before. 

There are many days, now, that are defined by grey space. And honestly, it can feel far easier to sit down next to someone else with a paintbrush full of grey, to swirl our questions and doubts and greys together, than to engage with the black-and-white painters with whom I used to feel at home. That sweet little girl? I can sit down next to her with my “crazy” and feel known, accepted. There seems to be many a black-and-white gallery where the greys are not invited. The questions, the doubts are covered over with a splat of black paint. Even still, I do sometimes miss those days of black-and-white.

You know what has been deeply comforting for me in the last several days, though? Some words, crafted by someone centuries ago…someone who, far as I can tell, was also swirling paint on a canvas and trying to understand the God who had defied his black-and-white too.

“You hem me in, behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me…Where shall I go from your Spirit? Where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” —From Psalm 139

I imagine this God, the God I tried to paint with black-and-white for far too many years, the God who I’ve now been trying to understand in shades of grey…THIS God is an expansive, brilliantly colorful God. A God I cannot flee…or contain. 

“If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” Even in the depths of darkness…in chaos and the swirling, scary unknown…even there, God resides. Other painters may be put off by the shades I am throwing on the canvas, but I can never scare God away. In fact, I think so many of us are trying so hard to contain this God on a canvas that we can see and understand and whose edges we can define, and yet God is continually trying to break free. I wield my paintbrush with a new shade of grey—a new question, a doubt I have been too afraid to name—and I imagine God handing me a pallet of exquisite new colors carefully stirred and mixed and crafted. “Try these,” comes the whispered encouragement. Other painters beside me may snicker behind their hands, may give me the side eye that silently says “you’ve stepped too far outside the lines,” but I will take the pallet handed me and dip my paintbrush anew.

There have been days when I have longed for the black-and-white, but the reality is, paint-by-number would never satisfy me anymore. I can’t look at that sweet little girl, a precious child who has trusted and been harmed, and give her the black-and-white. The black-and-white could never contain or tend to her gaping and bloody wounds. Instead, I want to bring her a breaking-off-the-canvas God, a God who took on the colorful costume of humanity and who put on brokenness because of Love. I want to bring her the brilliant shades of a God who cannot be contained by the black-and-white canvas, the God who is somehow present no matter how far I wander or fall. I want to bring her the God who can cradle her pain, who can take her yelling and hitting and “how could yous” and not try to convince her to dismiss or forget the shittiness of it all. I want to bring her the God who loves her deeply and unabashedly with a no-ifs-ands-or-buts kind of love.

Yeah, my canvas is changing. And sometimes I look around the room at all the black-and-white canvases and think it would be so much easier to forget the colors and shades I’ve learned and added to my canvas. But really? As often as I say I wish I could go back, I really don’t. I want to know the breaking-off-the-canvas God who is present no matter where I fall or land. If that means I have to find new galleries and work rooms to practice this painting craft, so be it. I will press on, apron splattered with new shades of the breaking-free God who is finding me in the spaces and places I never knew I could wander.

What A Drive Across Town Taught Me: Our Tendency Toward Homogenous Friendship and Why It Is Crucial for Us to Widen Our Circles

My first car was an old Volvo wagon. It was a family car, but I drove it from the time I got my license as a 16-year-old until the summer after I graduated from high school. It wasn’t long before I paid $2,000 for a gray Mazda, and I have had my own car ever since. Sure, I’ve had to call friends or family to bail me out when I found myself on the side of the road with a flat tire or some other vehicular malfunction. But I’ve never been forced to rely on public transportation or my own two legs to get me from place to place.

I don’t think she has ever owned her own car. She grew up in a big city and is extremely proficient at navigating bus schedules and public transportation routes. She plans her days around when she has to be at a particular bus stop. I will never forget the day she asked for a ride across town. She had a kid home from school with a fever and sore throat. After walking her daughter to the hospital a couple miles away to be evaluated, she returned home with prescription and school excuse in hand. She called me, asking if I would be willing to drive her to the middle school so she could turn in the school excuse. I readily agreed because I was already on that side of town and free for the next hour. As we drove the 15 minutes to the school, she casually mentioned that a trip to and from the school would take upwards of three hours by bus. My jaw nearly hit the floor.

I have always had a car. And nearly every day I forget what a luxury it is to have easy access to personal transportation. She and I are the same age, but our lives are so incredibly different. I don’t have to worry about how long it will take to get to the bus station and switch buses. I don’t have to structure my life around the availability of other people to drive me to the store. I complain about oil changes and car repairs, but the truth is, I am privileged to worry about such things.


Recently, I stumbled upon some research that was rather alarming to me. According to the Barna Group, evangelicals are more likely than the general population to select as friends people who are like them. This is especially true in regards to religious beliefs, ethnicity, and political views. In fact, 91% of evangelicals report that their friends share mostly similar religious beliefs. Due to a number of different reasons I won’t get into here, I do not self-identify as evangelical anymore. But I still find this statistic to be concerning. Put as bluntly as possible, we have a relationship crisis, my friends. Barna states, “friendship with those who are different to us increases empathy and causes a shift in our views toward them—in very positive ways.” Read: Evangelicals are NOT experiencing this positive shift, but are instead cloistering themselves in an echo chamber.

Is it any wonder, then, that evangelicals are statistically considered to be the least likely to believe the United States has a responsibility to welcome refugees? It is difficult to empathize with someone else’s experience when you have no proximity to him. It was easy for me to stand in judgment of people like my friend, to ask naive questions like, “Why don’t they (the infamous THEY) just get a job? Why don’t they just take the bus?”—before I actually KNEW my friend and experienced the joys and challenges of her life. It was only through relationship with her that I discovered just how hard she works for her family. She taught me how difficult and complex it is to navigate systems that are created by people in power to supposedly “help” people like her.

In his book White Awake, Daniel Hill shares about an eye-opening experience he had, in which a friend asked him to list the most influential voices in his life in the categories of friends/mentors, authors he reads, and theologians he learns from. As he tallied his lists, he realized how homogenous they were. There was no diversity of voice in his life. He encourages his readers to take the same inventory. From whom are you seeking advice? With whom are you spending time? What voices are you listening to and learning from? If you find that you are primarily listening to and learning from people who are just like you, maybe it’s time to widen your circle.

But how? I readily acknowledge that intentionally integrating more diverse voices and experiences into your life is not as easy as snapping your fingers. But it is valuable, necessary work. Here are some ideas to get you started:

1) Volunteer. Find organizations in your city that empower and come alongside people groups we have historically (and presently) marginalized and oppressed. Don’t volunteer with the intention of “serving” someone. Instead, try showing up with an attitude of curiosity and a desire to learn from people who have a different life experience than your own. If it is difficult for you to find time to commit to doing so, try doing something that is more flexible, like writing letters to a person in prison. I will share more about this soon, but I just mailed my first letter to my pen pal through The Death Row Support Project. What an incredible opportunity to learn from someone whose experience I do not understand! I don’t know what it will look like for you, but be intentional about putting yourself in a place to learn from someone who is different from you religiously, ethnically, socioeconomically, etc.

2) Increase the diversity on your bookshelf. Read books written by people of color. Here is a list compiled by the ECC for Black History Month to get you started. Seek out authors, artists, film directors, and podcast curators who come from a faith background, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and/or sexual orientation different from your own.

3) Get curious. When you find yourself standing in judgment of someone else, or dictating what you think another person should do or be, take a step back and ask questions instead. Listen to people’s stories. Ask someone how they came to a particular conclusion. You might find that getting curious and seeking to KNOW people is far more enlightening and transformative than arguing politics from a distance.

In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle says, “Here is what we seek: A compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Friends, let’s pursue that kind of compassion. In my experience, doing so usually requires PROXIMITY and PRESENCE. In the way of Jesus—who ate with the outcast, touched the diseased, talked to the easily dismissed, and kept company with the unpopular—may we seek to widen our circles and lengthen our tables. I think you will find, like I have, that it is YOUR life that will be changed and enriched. ❤️

A red herring we need to discuss: “I’m not called.”

“Can you take her to the grocery store to buy diapers and formula?” The caseworker looked at me expectantly from across the table, her eyes imploring me to say yes. I glanced over at the new mom needing a ride two miles down the road to the grocery store. I hardly knew her, and yet our stories intersected that day in a way I would marvel at for years to come. “Uh, sure!” I answered hesitantly as the sweetest toddler climbed up into my lap.

That day, as I sat in a stranger’s apartment and cradled her newborn, poverty became a face in front of me. “Pro-life” became a choice, not a box to check or a stance to champion. Systemic racism looked like a single mom profiled and accused by a government agency. Suddenly, whether or not I was “called” to fight for the impoverished, to tackle systemic racism, or to advocate for life became utterly irrelevant…because if I said “no” to giving her a ride to the grocery store, this woman’s life—her family’s trajectory—would be impacted for months (and even years, possibly generations) to come. Her children would be placed in foster care, and the trauma of being ripped away from a deeply loving and committed mother would no doubt leave a lasting imprint on their developing brains and tender hearts. And who knows what the trauma of losing her children, her very reason for existing, would do to her??? Suddenly, this woman’s survival depended on me taking thirty minutes out of my day to drive her to and from the grocery store. If I had said, “I just don’t feel called to this,” the consequences would have been real and lasting in her life and the lives of her precious children.


I cannot possibly count the number of times I have said, “I just don’t feel called to that,” or, “I think God is calling me in a different direction.” Honestly, I think I genuinely believed those words when I said them, and I am quite sure the intentions behind them were pure. But now I cringe when I think about the opportunities I shirked with those words and the lives that were changed because I smoothly gave a masked “I don’t want to.” Having been involved in nonprofit work for several years, I have now been on the receiving end of these words more times than I can count. And today, I’m just going to say it: I believe this idea of “not being calling” is often just a culturally acceptable, Christianese excuse masking all sorts of very real fears we don’t want to acknowledge.

“I don’t feel called to _______.”  These words roll off our tongues pretty easily when we are removed from the weight of them. It was effortless for me to say, “I’m not called to help the homeless population,” when the beautiful faces I now see every week were just a statistic. It was pretty easy for me to say, “I’m not called to advocate for those in prison,” before I received a letter from a person who suffers under the unjust and racist structures that are almost tangibly imbedded in the walls of our prisons. And it was pretty easy for me to spout off prideful and ignorant words about a pro-life “stance” before the result of that stance was sitting in front of me and needing a ride to the grocery store.

“I don’t feel called to _____.” I think these words are a red herring, meant to distract us from the very real people suffering under the oppressive systems we are knowingly or unknowingly perpetuating. Listen, I get it! I am not naive enough to believe that every person can “champion” every “cause.” Heck, there are probably thousands of very REAL injustices that I am unaware of and perpetuating. Certainly there are opportunities for sacrificial love that I turn down in pursuit of something or someone else. But can we just be honest? Can we stop throwing “calling” around like candy in a parade and say what we really mean? Something like:

“You know, that really intimidates me.”

OR

“I am scared about how that [person, opportunity, etc.] will affect me and/or my family.”

OR

“I don’t want to spend money on that right now.”

OR

“I would rather invest my time elsewhere.”

OR

“I don’t understand that issue or why I should want to help that person.”

OR

“I am actually really excited about ____ right now and want to work on that.”

Let’s commit to being really honest, because it is only when we are candid with ourselves and others that genuine conversation can be had. And let’s not continue reducing human beings in very real need to an issue or project you can feel “called to” or dismiss just as easily as a party invitation. We ALL need to reckon with the reality that our actions (or inactions) have consequences.

I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s reflection on the Parable of the Good Samaritan in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech: “The first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

What would change if we started asking THAT question? What if, instead of quickly and easily saying, “I’m not called to that,” we asked some real and probing questions of ourselves? Questions like:

If I say no to this, what will happen? Who will suffer?

What opportunities for learning and growth will I miss if I say no?

Do I have a relationship with a real, live person who will be affected by my action/inaction?

What other perspectives am I not considering?

What does my ability to walk away from this say about my privilege?

I believe our families, our friendships, and our communities will benefit from the kinds of conversations that could result if we replaced “I’m not called to that” with honest dialogue. My life has been transformed by people who refused to settle for this response and instead pressed in and asked hard questions. Regardless of whether or not you end up saying “yes” to the need in front of you, you may be surprised by what you learn about yourself or someone else by honestly confronting your hesitations. And who knows what you might end up developing a passion for by getting curious and putting yourself in a position to learn?!

 

***I know there are theological issues I am not addressing here, specifically related to calling/gifting/the leading of the Holy Spirit, as well as the sovereignty of God. I get it…being “called” is not always an excuse or distraction. I just think that it often is. Maybe let’s consider what could be beneath the response before we immediately start arguing theology 🙂 

Single and childless, but with a full heart: My advice to all who long to be a parent

I realized today that I have been an Instagram user for nearly six years. As I looked back over the hundreds of images I have shared in that space over the years, my heart squeezed because I realized how a longing of my heart has been fulfilled in the most unexpected way.

I have always longed to be a mama. I was the weird girl who played with baby dolls for far longer than was socially acceptable. I never imagined I would be nearing three decades of life without a growing brood of kiddos who share my last name. I always imagined I would be a foster mom by now. But here I am, and none of that has happened. And I would be lying if I said the ache for that is gone (it’s not). BUT. This role I have gotten to fill these last several years, that of “auntie,” has been one of the greatest joys of my life.

I have cradled, fed, played with, taught, rocked in the middle of the night, and chauffeured kids who share neither my last name nor (for most of them) my blood. I have been a pediatric nurse for the last six years, but most of what I know about kids and mothering has come from hands-on, blood-guts-and-tears experience alongside other parents in the trenches. It has come not from textbooks and physician mentors, but in living life alongside moms and dads doing the hardest job in the world.

Honestly, I could not have lived and loved these kiddos if I was where I thought and hoped I would be by now. I have lived with families (or my own makeshift family of girlfriend roomies and Safe Families kiddos) for the larger part of the last decade. I am “auntie” or “Aberdabber” to now dozens of kids (…turning into adults 😳).

My point, and best piece of advice? Don’t wait. 

If you long to be a parent and (for whatever reason) can’t right now, find some kiddos to nurture and some parents to link arms with. Become an “auntie” or “uncle,” and be the best one you can be. Babysit, teach Sunday school, mentor foster kids, or even get licensed as a foster or Safe Families parent. Volunteer at an after school program or local school. Coach a youth sports team. Inquire about rocking babies at the hospital. Don’t just try to survive with this desire gnawing at your heart and no balm to soothe that space.

Do I still long to be a mama? Of course. But I have loved and been loved in ways that have impacted my world and, hopefully, the lives of so many little (and now not-so-little) ones. And I believe your life will be transformed in all the best possible ways too, so don’t wait. Find ways to use that gift of nurture to change the world, one little life at a time.

In honor of the stayers, the root-planters, the long-haul neighbors: You don’t need to move across the world to love big

I was maybe a year into nursing school when I decided I was moving to Africa. Oh don’t worry, it was exactly as dramatic as it sounds. After putting my life on hold while my dad met and succumbed to cancer, I was bloated with a fire for changing the world. I immersed myself in the blogs of starry-eyed millennials shirking cultural norms and embracing a life of extreme sacrifice in order to make some kind of noticeable impact on this world. I could relate. I had watched someone dear to me slowly wither and fade…the brevity of life was fresh on my mind, and I was equally swept up in a culture that promised accolades for grand gestures of proclaimed faith. I wanted to do something important with the short time I had on this earth, and without even realizing it at the time, I think I wanted to do something that would make me feel loved and valued. Lack of education, useful skills, or even defined purpose aside, moving to Africa seemed like an appropriate option.

I will never forget what my older sister said to me in the midst of that season: “Ab, there is great poverty in Africa, for sure. But there is poverty everywhere. It might be a different kind of poverty, but you’ll find it here too.” Initially, her words were like a cup of cold water thrown in the face of my zealous fervor. But as I mulled over what she said, I realized she was right. Somehow I had forgotten my roots.


“Are you Lindy Heath’s daughter?” I froze, immediately distracted from my task of pulling dollar bills out of my wallet. “Uh, yeah! Did you know him?” She immediately teared up, handing me the bouquet of flowers I had just purchased. “He was a regular here, always buying flowers for your mom or his coworkers. He never failed to ask me—by name—how I was doing. I miss seeing his smile around here.” It had been 8+ years since my dad had died.

The same week as my encounter with the florist, my younger sister had a similar experience. A coworker found out Cara’s maiden name was Heath and immediately asked her if she was Lindy’s daughter. This woman then told my sister that our dad had taught her eighth grade science class. She said, “Your dad was the only person who came to visit me in the hospital after I was in a serious car accident with my family. It was so many years ago now, but I will always remember that.”

My dad lived in the same town—the same house, even—for more than fifty years of his life. In that time, he took more than 10,000 trips to and from the local middle school where he worked. He memorized the names of thousands of students, and wrote hundreds of letters to coworkers. He invested in countless lives, impacting the world without ever leaving his corner of the globe. He stayed, his life a testimony of what Shannan Martin calls the “love song for the long haul.”


“Choosing to stay, at times, can be unhealthy or even impossible. Other times, it is obedient surrender, and we just have to stick it out until the good stuff begins.” —Shannan Martin, The Ministry of Ordinary Places

I had underestimated the power of staying. I think I will always have a restless bone in my body, a lust for adventure and change when life proves to be less than glamorous. I am still easily tempted by the lure of grand gestures of service and devotion. On many days, moving across the world feels easier than facing difficult coworkers or washing dishes at the local homeless shelter. A life of staying may not be sexy, but it can be powerful. This world needs more stayers, people who will put down roots and love their neighbors and community for years on end. People who will show up with a pot of soup after that grumpy neighbor has surgery. People like my friend June, who has faithfully swept the floors and cleaned out the fridge at the family shelter every Wednesday for years. People like my dad, who served quietly and gave generously for several decades of his life in my hometown. To my knowledge, there are no plaques that bear his name, no books written about his life. But his name is still on the lips and in the hearts of people who encountered him, even a decade after his death. His was a quiet love that tended to the wounds and longings of thousands. A love song for the long haul. 

Maybe you will find yourself traveling the world someday. Maybe you will have books written about you or find your name enshrined on a plaque or two. But maybe not. Maybe your life will simply be one of staying, of showing up for your neighbors and your family without acknowledgment or fanfare. Maybe the most difficult journey you will take is the one next door. If so, sing your love song loud. This world needs more stayers, and take it from me…you don’t need to move across the world to love big. 

So if you are like me, occasionally looking for an escape route or hoping for a more glamorous calling, maybe you will find this prayer helpful. I know I’ll be right here, trying to grow my roots while praying:

“Oh, Lord, remind us that what we really want is more of you. You show us what it means to remain where you have placed us with great purpose—in the rumble of the city, down a winding lane, in the cookie-cutter ‘burbs where pain might show up in less obvious ways, but is breathing hot down our necks all the same. Show us the real way of worship, and grant us the guts to belong to each other when it’s hardest. Teach us to walk in place, memorizing the lay of this unimpressive land and calling it good. Help us to hang on for the encore, where your best work often waits. Prone to wander, Lord, we feel it…You are here, tuning our hearts to endurance, teaching us a love song for the long haul. Help us to endure when we feel dog-tired. Have your way.” —Shannan Martin, The Ministry of Ordinary Places

Dear Body, Let’s Make Peace

Without fail, it seems like every January ushers in a fresh obsession with the latest fad diets, a more accentuated cultural pressure for women to take up less space in the world, and an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction with the extra cellulite deposited over the course of holiday merriment with loved ones. Maybe I am just more aware of it because of what I am reading and who I am surrounding myself with (check out Hillary McBride’s book Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image), but it seems like every ad that meets my eyes these days has to do with weight loss or some other form of body “improvement.”

My relationship with my body is a complex one. She and I have been on quite a journey together, one that I suspect will continue until the day I cease to exist within her. I am just as vulnerable to the screaming messages of culture as the next woman, but I also find myself surrounded by women who are constantly teaching me to search for truth, to embrace my flaws and learn from them, and to stand up with confidence and invest in loving people rather than striving to impress the masses.

I write about mountains to be conquered, but today I want to stand up and say that my body is not one of those. And neither is yours. 

I wrote the following letter over a year ago. It feels vulnerable to share these words with you here, but I have also found that sometimes the most important and valuable words I can offer you are the ones I am afraid to say. Because chances are, if I’m afraid to say them, maybe someone else is too…and maybe by grabbing the mic first, I will give someone else the courage to say what she needs to say. So here I am, saying what feels vulnerable and scary but also honest and real.


Dear Body,

I think I have forgotten, ignored you.

I have treated you as Intruder, as a problem to be solved rather than Giver of Life, a strong solution to a world of problems.

I remember so clearly the day I thought you were wrong. I was a little girl, sitting in a bath with a friend, when she pointed out that my belly was bigger than hers. She probably did not cast judgment in that statement, but I felt in that moment like you were wrong. I was different, and this body of mine was abnormal. 

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I remember overhearing a man from church say that his wife “could certainly keep up her figure better,” but then excuse this apparently vile flaw by saying, “but she has so many other good qualities, like how she serves others.” So if my body cannot be desirable to a man, I have to make up for that with service?

My period came, and I was embarrassed. I did not feel like I could tell my mom what I needed, how my body was changing and rebelling, so I hid the blood. I couldn’t ask for feminine products. I couldn’t ask for anything I needed. 

I remember when I started forcing my body to fit the mold others made for it. The calorie counting, feeling so proud when I could restrict myself until my stomach ached with hunger. My mind would scream, “I will beat you into submission, Body!” and I would eat salad and sugar free popsicles. I was 13 years old.

Then I discovered a new form of tortuous delight…running. For the first time, I was watching the cellulite disappear and others began to comment on the rightness of my body. “Wow! You look good! You are so skinny!” So apparently it was true…I WAS wrong before. I was broken, and now I was skinny and right. My feet would obsessively pound the pavement. Thanksgiving dinner? Had to run five miles first. Weekend trip with a girlfriend? Six miles. I felt strong, in control. Beating my body to be what I and others desired made me feel so powerful. “Maybe now they will approve of you, Body” I thought.

I stopped starving myself. The pounds crept back on. Slowly, because I was still running. But then even that went away. A knife cut into my body and removed a diseased organ, but then I couldn’t run. Until I just didn’t. I started compensating. Maybe remembering the words of that man about his wife, I started finding ways to make myself invaluable to other people by serving and helping and doing whatever they wanted me to do. The ultimate pleaser. I kept exercising because they said I should, but I hated every minute of it.

There were the youth group conversations, the group discussions where the boys told us they imagined us naked when we wore wrong things and that was shameful. Yikes, so now my body was dangerous too. Cover it up! Then there were the private conversations, men who told me my shirt was too low-cut (my developing breasts were wrong too) or that my body odor was abhorrent (great, even my sweat is disgusting!).

I always noticed the girls who had boys chasing after them. “What do I have to do to my body to earn the desire of a guy?” I would think. After all, we do treat that as the pinnacle of womanhood…being desired by a man. 

Body, I have pretended you did not exist. I have misused you, spoken poorly about you, and sought to disown you. All the while, you have carried me, holding moments of joy and sorrow that no one else has known. You have held hands and hugged dear ones and walked miles and scooped up crying babes.

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YOU are strong. You have sat at the bedside of the dying and wiped away your father’s tears as he passed into the next life.

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You have carried the burdens of others and stored away secrets for friends.

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You have held the stress and tension my mind did not know how to process. YOU are not wrong, you are actually ME.

You are powerful and full of dreams and desires that can change lives and pathways and worlds. You are beautiful, the embodiment of ME: Comforter, friend, joy-bearer, life-speaker, team-builder. Your legs can climb mountains, your arms hoist giggling children up into the air. The cellulite you have tried so desperately at times to purge bears the energy required to be a creator of life. YOU are Woman. Beautiful, strong, ENOUGH.

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Hello, Body. I embrace you as you are, no longer despise you or your needs. You are MINE. Not someone else’s to control or mold into a caricature, but MINE. There are desires and needs to be uncovered in you and cradled so gently, not ignored or begrudgingly met in order to be pushed away.

And Woman…Yes, you who sit next to me and beside me and on the other side of this screen…Let’s make peace with our bodies, ok? Let’s celebrate all they are and all they have carried. Let’s discover what they need and crave, and gently tend to those desires. Let’s enter what you might even find to be uncharted waters, a space where we can declare to the world, “I am not wrong, I am everything right and good and powerful! I. Am. Woman.” Let’s do this together, okay?  For ourselves, for the women who came before us and the girls who will come after us. Let’s make a new way. 

Tenderly,

Abigail…ALL of me.

 

Entering 2019: Two Reminders For The Discouraged

I woke up this morning and struggled to get out of bed. Usually, I welcome the New Year with gusto. I savor the fresh start and look forward to turning over a new page in my blank calendar. I am one of those weirdos who finds great pleasure in selecting a “word for the year” and setting goals to accomplish over the next 12 months. But this year, for some reason, I am dreading the blank calendar page. 

2019 feels more daunting than welcoming.

The goals that loom before me, some I want to accomplish and some I need to check off, feel as massive as Everest.

I am overwhelmed, and when I am overwhelmed I would rather pull the covers over my head and delay the start of this day, month, and year by even just five minutes. 

Can anyone relate?

Questions and doubts swirl in my head.

  • What if I fail?
  • What if there are not enough resources to accomplish x, y, or z?
  • What if I disappoint so-and-so?
  • What if I arrive at December 2019 in the same exact mental/physical/financial place?
  • Or even worse, what if I lose more than I gain over the next 12 months?

When I give in to the insecurities and questions, I find myself paralyzed by doubt. And I lay in bed for far longer than I should.

As I finally threw the covers off and pulled myself out of bed this morning, I was taken back to my middle school days. There were many mornings of my junior high life that found me sitting next to my dad in the car and describing in great angst my dread of the day before me. His words? Every single time, without fail: “Just show up, Ab. Showing up is half the battle.” 

Just show up. One foot in front of the other. Eventually, those footsteps will take me up that mountain.

I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes. These words, words I have taped to the back of my bedroom door, seem a fitting way to enter this New Year that I haven’t been even remotely eager to face. Maybe you will find these words a comfort as well:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.”

-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

For those of you who, like me, are dreading 2019 more than cheering it into existence, I offer us two gentle reminders:

1. Just show up. As my dad always said, showing up is half the   battle.

2. “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” 

I may not jump out of bed tomorrow with eagerness, but I will throw off the covers and plant my feet on the ground. I will show up, and I will try to remember that there is beauty to be found in the suspense of incompleteness. There is beauty to be mined from the mountain that looms before me. Without knowing what mountain stands before you, I would guess that you will find beauty on your journey as well. So let’s commit to finding it, shall we? Even if we have to dig down deep.