Body of a Saint

In my post about suffering, I wrote about feeling that I needed to prove to my evangelical Christian peers and leaders that I was good when I was younger.  Let me explain: I had changed.  Developed from a girl, into a pre-teen, into a teen, and the wag of my widening hips, my humor, my energy, and what became my signature sass made my evangelical Christian friends and leaders, well, uneasy.

There was nothing inherently wrong about the 50s pin-up ba-boom of the hips that the sheer girth of my backside made me do, but people were beginning to think that if I wasn’t careful, I might not be the right kind of evangelical Christian woman (that is to say: sweet, quiet, prayerful, and eternally supportive of her man).

The church’s suspicions about me were never so clear as when I was cast as a demon or a whore in church skits and plays.  Once, I was even cast as sex itself.  My role was to silently seduce “Christian” with my body.  Christian would refuse me and then slam a Bible before my face, causing me to wither onto the floor, while Christian moved on to his next temptation: money.

After a performance at a British private school we were visiting as missionaries, the actor playing Christian pulled me aside.

“You’re good at that part,” he told me.

“Thanks,” I replied.  I had actually worked really hard at my part, practicing my seductive moves and dramatic wilting until it was just right.  The trick was, you had to make the withering part was big enough to get the point across without the use of words, and from a distance no less, but not make it so big as to take people out of the scene, reminding them that it was just theater after all.  The scene had to get inside them for their heart to change, preparing their hearts for Jesus to enter into it, so that was important.

Christian smiled.  “Maybe you’re too good at the part,” he raised his eyebrows.

My face burned.

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” he said.  Then he turned away, repeating in a sing-song, “Nothing at all….”

I knew exactly what he meant.  Knew that the fact that I was even capable of making the audience think of sex—which was all I had before he shoved the Bible in my face—was enough to suggest I wasn’t pure.  

I wanted to make my leaders, my friends, myself believe I was good, but my stupid, floppy, breasty body was always getting in the way.  I was sure that if I could just get rid of my body, lofty spiritual philosophies that had been locked up in it would flow from me like a river and I would be declared a great saint.

Returning home from my third surgery at the age of 20, forty pounds lighter, my wish had finally come true.  My body was flat.  Girlish. Safe. Foreign to me. Like that of a child again. Like that of a saint.

I remember lying in my childhood bed, my t-shirt pulled up to my chest at the age of 20.  I remember staring at the nearly foot-long wound stuffed with gauze that now ran the length of my abdomen.  My bare feet stuck out between the white wooden bars of my daybed as though I were Alice in Wonderland having eaten a piece of “eat me” cake and found myself in a crib I was suddenly very aware of having outgrown.  Despite becoming physically smaller, I felt so much…bigger all of a sudden—aged by suffering, a grown woman in a playpen.

I strained to lift my head so I could inspect my tattered stomach.  Bandages of various shapes and sizes papered the surface.  Beneath them, in the lower right hand corner of my abdomen, a plastic ileostomy bag was attached to a nub of small intestine that protruded from my side.  The bag caught my waste and gas for over a year before my surgeon would one day bend a piece of my small intestines into a makeshift colon to replace the one I lost.

“Linda?” my mom called from outside my bedroom door.

I pulled my t-shirt back down over my exposed stomach.  “Yes?” I called.

The door opened and Mom’s face appeared through the crack.  “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” I said.

“I wasn’t sure if you were sleeping,” she opened the door the rest of the way.

“No,” I said.  “I just changed my dressing,” nodding toward the bandage on my stomach.

Mom came over to the side of the bed and picked up the wet gauze I had changed out for fresh, wrapping it in a Kleenex and walking over to the trash can with it.  “Pastor Mark called,” she said softly as she walked back to the bed.

“Oh yeah?”  I answered, straining to turn onto my side.

“Let me help you,” she offered.

Mom took me lightly by the shoulders and rolled me over onto my side.  I planted my palms firmly on the mattress, releasing my weight onto them to ease the strain on my stomach and tried to push myself upright.  Mom watched me, her forehead furrowed with concern, before putting her arms on my shoulders and helping me the rest of the way.

“Thank you,” I said.  She took hold of my legs, slowly lifting them from the bed to the floor while I winced in pain.

She continued, “He told me they’re going to have live animals in the nativity scene this year.”  She lowered herself onto the bed next to me, helping me straighten my body.  “Donkeys, cows, chickens.  They’ve even got llamas.”

“Cool,” I said resting my forehead on my hand.  I was still getting dizzy every time I went from lying down to sitting due to the dehydration.

“Linda,” Mom ducked down so she could make eye contact with me even as my head was bent.  “Linda, this year…Pastor Mark said they want you to play Mary in the live nativity scene.”

“Me?” I asked, pulling my head out of my hand.

“You would even get to hold a real little baby,” she beamed.

Were I not in so much pain, I might have laughed.  There was no way I could hold a baby.  I couldn’t even hold myself up.  I was weaker than I had ever been.

“Mom,” I said.  “I can’t do that.”

“I know,” she sighed, taking my hand.  “I know honey.  I told Pastor Mark you were still too sick.  But I thought you would want to know.  They chose you, Linda.  They chose you.”

I smiled sadly.  “Thanks Mom.”

“Sure,” she smiled back.  “Let me go grab you some water.”

“Okay,” I said.

Mary, I thought to myself as she left the room.  They want me to be Mary. Of all the parts in the world…the Virgin Mother.  I couldn’t believe it; I was finally good.

My prayer at the age of 14 that I referenced in my post on suffering?  It may have been foolish, but it was not misinformed.  I had known exactly what it would take for me to win goodness in the eyes of my community—depressing my body and trading my playfulness for frailty.  I was finally the martyr I had always wanted to be.  Though for what cause, I wasn’t sure.  There was no gun pointed to my head, no angry gang leader demanding I deny my faith.  Instead, it was just me: smiling and ignoring my body’s plea to pay attention to it.  It led me right where I wanted it to lead me—death’s door.  But instead of forgetting my body, I was more aware of it than ever—of how much I missed it.  Sitting alone in my room that day, I would have traded in the church’s perception of me as good to be able to run and jump and play in a short skirt and a low cut tank top with big flirtatious smile on my face in a heartbeat.

Today, looking back on this moment of realization at the age of 20, it seems to me a kind of strange nativity scene.  Only in this nativity scene, I’m not playing Mary.  I’m playing the baby—too big for her daybed crib but too small for prayer-wishes that just may be answered.  In some ways, I was starting over again that day.  Unformed.  Unsure.  But ready to try being who I was this time around—soul, mind and body.

Today, I’m almost 34.  Over a decade ago, my Crohn’s Diesease entered a long and gorgeous remission allowing me to be reborn into a body I have come to embrace and deeply love.  Every scar is an experience.  Now a wide scar runs down the middle of my abdomen.  Another hugs my side where my ileostomy bag once was.  And a few others keep them company.  Every wrinkle is made from living my life—dark, sleepless nights and long, hard laughter.  The places where my skin dimples are like smiles, dents made from being well-rested and well-fed.  The pockets where my fat pooches are signs of big pots of soup, cherry pies and a crème brulee I had in Paris that I will never forget.  My life is etched into every part of me.  And I’ve come to learn something amazing: I don’t have to leave a bit of it behind to find God, not even my big hips.

Sometimes, in fact, when I need God most, I go deeper into my body to find him, because my body often hears God before the rest of me does—its muscles contracting or releasing with warning, memory, or some other message.   And so, today, I pay attention to my body.  I listen to it and do my best to learn the lessons it has to offer me rather than telling it to shut up and follow my mind’s lead.  Because the thing about a wound is that, when treated, it heals.  A light wound disappears altogether and a deep wound develops into a scar—which becomes tougher, stronger than even the untouched skin around it.

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Man Up

Today my boyfriend Jimmie Briggs (on your left) spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative about the 24-country campaign to end violence against women that he co-founded and now runs called Man Up.

You can watch a video about the campaign here.

 

It takes guts for a man to take this issue on. To help solve a problem that is too often thought of as “a woman’s issue,” but that is really a human issue.

So I wanted to take a moment to thank him.  Publicly.  Thank you Jimmie—as your girlfriend, as a woman, as a fellow human being.

Learn more about the Man Up Campaign here.

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On Suffering

I am writing this post from Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. It is not the romantic getaway I had planned for my Labor Day weekend.  At all.  In fact, let me tell you just what I had planned because it is just too good not to share: a private writers retreat at the gorgeous New Jersey home of an artist friend I met in grad school, complete with a writing and art studio, deck, hammock, well-stocked wine cellar, and floppy dog hungry for me to walk him during my writing breaks.  Four days and five nights of solitude, warm skies, and pages upon pages of my book.  Sigh. In other words, a dream. But what do they say? Life is what happens when you’re making other plans? Three weeks ago I began to feel that old familiar pain; Friday was the MRI; by Saturday I was flat on my back in a hospital bed again.

It has been fifteen years since I first began to experience symptoms of the Crohn’s Disease that keeps me coming back here.

And eighteen years since I asked God for it.

I couldn’t have been more than 15 at the time.  Just young and foolish enough to pray that God would allow something horrible to happen to me.  “Don’t just give me the milk, Lord,” I used to pray.  “Give me the meat.”  I was referring to 1 Corinthians 3:1-2.

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Even now, you are still not ready.

While other girls my age fantasized about finding boyfriends, I fantasized about suffering as my spiritual lover, Jesus Christ, had suffered, so he would know I was willing to go as far for him as he went for me the day he died for my sins.  In one of my favorite childhood fantasies I imagined myself a missionary pulled from my home by an angry mob, a gun is pointed at my head.  In the fantasy, I was told to deny my Christian faith, or die.  I chose death, of course, and was shot on the spot, sprawling romantically on the ground while those I brought to Christ before I died wept over my body.

I ached to be given the opportunity to prove that I was not what the apostle Paul called a “person of the flesh,” nor what my evangelical Christian youth leaders called a “woman of the flesh,” a sexual threat to men.  No.  I was divorced from my physical form, a woman of the spirit alone.  They could do anything to my body; I would nevergive up my soul.

As an evangelical Christian teenager, I was wholly devoted to a religion that glorifies gore and gorifies God.  At the center of the Christian religion is the story of a bodily suffering so terrible that it saved the world.  Even Jesus, who lived a perfect life, did less good with it than he did with his death.  It was Christ’s suffering, not his joy, that set us free.  It was his death, not his life, that allowed us to enter Heaven.  So when our bodies were beaten and our hearts broken, my friends and I knew we reflected the perfect life of Christ, whose suffering and death was the hinge upon which God’s plan for the world turned.  The more God allowed us to suffer, the more opportunity he gave us to prove our unshakable devotion to him, just as Job, Jonah, Habakkuk and even Jesus had done.  Suffering was our opportunity to be someone.

So when I began to experience a mysterious abdominal pain and blood loss from my anus in my late teens, the first thing I did was thank God for the opportunity to praise him through suffering, an experience I was sure would bring Jesus and me closer together, just like Billy Graham said it would.  But the second thing I did was schedule an appointment with a doctor.  Suffering was all well and good, but God also liked to work miracles from time to time, and often used doctors to do them.  The first doctor I saw took one look at me and said my real problem wasn’t pain and blood loss; it was acne.  I looked down at my lap, hiding my face in my hair.

Over the past few months, I had been trying to embrace my newly outrageous acne, and was silently cheering on a self-assured classmate rising through the ranks of popularity at my public school despite her own acne outbreaks.  That’s right, I would think to myself as I watched her.  Our physical appearance shouldn’t dictate our level of confidence.  After all, we are creatures of the spirit, not of the flesh alone!

My staunch belief that physical appearance didn’t matter much had become increasingly important to me since I saw a photograph of the supermodel, Shalom Harlow, rocking a “bowl” haircut in a magazine.  The haircut perfectly framed her high cheekbones and her eyes looked dark and mysterious peering out from under her thick bangs.  I thought she looked like a hot Joan of Arc and cut the photograph out, presenting it to my hairdresser the following week.  He shrugged and gave me the cut I requested, shaking his head while he snipped. Afterward, I did not, in fact, look like Joan of Arc.  Nor did I look even remotely hot.  Under the mushroom of hair that now sat on top of my acne-ridden face, I looked more like Moe from the Three Stooges.  Or a chubby Amish kid.  Who just happened to smell like rotten eggs since I had started taking the sulfurous acne medication the first doctor prescribed me.

Too ashamed of the physical appearance I told myself didn’t matter to return to the doctor who wasn’t afraid to call me out on it, I scheduled an appointment with a second doctor.  He too dismissed me from his office after a short consultation, but this time with the name of an over-the-counter hemorrhoid medication and of a gastroenterologist.   The gastroenterologist diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a cousin of Crohn’s Disease, but before I left his office, he grabbed hold of my arm and told me that if my symptoms were as severe as I claimed they were, I wouldn’t be smiling so much.  Clearly, he had no experience with evangelical Christian girls and our truly outstanding capacity for smiling.

My girlfriends and I knew it was our responsibility to represent Jesus to the non-Christian world.  The word “Christian,” after all, meant “Christ-like.” So if we were a drag, people would assume that Jesus was a drag.  But if we were fun, people may just become Christians, which would save them from eternal damnation.  And so, even while we suffered, especiallywhile we suffered, we smiled.  We laughed.  We wrote people encouragement cards.  I even made Christmas cookies and dropped them off at every storefront open on Christmas Eve one year.  And when my friends and I got home from a long day of smiling goodness, our smile got even bigger, because we knew it was also our role to be what our pastor called “cheerleaders” for the “football players” in our lives, the evangelical Christian men who faced battles we could not even imagine.  You never saw a group of teenage girls so…happy.

The gastroenterologist’s implication that I was someone who would exaggerate her symptoms for—what?—attention?—haunted me for months afterward.  I didn’t ever want to be the kind of girl who would ever do such a selfish thing.  I wanted to be good, a good Christian girl.  Maybe this is a reasonable amount of pain I’m experiencing, I thought.  Nothing to complain about it all. Deep inside, I knew something was seriously wrong with me, but when the little voice inside—the one that some call our intuition and that I now call the Holy Spirit—whispered that all three doctors’ diagnoses were wrong and that I would have to fight to be taken seriously or my symptoms would grow out of control, I told it to shut up.  I was suffering, I insisted, not because there was some big thing wrong with me, but because I was special.

I decided I would never complain about my pain again, no matter what.  I would show them!  I would be so good and uncomplaining that I would die if it came to that.  I imagined my church friends finding my dead limp body sprawled over a chair in the youth group room and flagellating themselves for having judged me so often when all the while I had been silently suffering, a martyr of their righteous oppression, just as Jesus had suffered at the hands of the “religious” Pharisees.

Eventually, I left for college across the country.  By the middle of my freshman year, I was bleeding a quarter cup of blood and intestinal lining into the toilet every ten minutes and had lost so much blood that I had tumbled off of the toilet and onto my college dorm’s bathroom floor.  I managed to pull my pants up but I was too weak to stand or even get back onto the toilet to continue bleeding into it.  I heard my friend Sebastian’s voice in the hall and called out to him.  When he entered, he discovered me curled in a ball in front of the toilet.  Helping me to my feet and supporting me under his shoulder, he called a cab and together we went to the emergency room…. (Read the rest of this piece on Feminist.com – http://bit.ly/on_suffering)

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Interview on Women and Wellness

My friend Simone–an expert in all things women and wellness who looks fabulous in yellow–posted this interview with me on her blog today. It is all about how I (try to) maintain a sense of wellness while I (try to) live out my purpose.

Simone: What are you passionate about?

Linda: Last week I led a workshop for a group of college students. I encouraged them to talk to strangers on the subway. To tell their whole truths to someone they will never see again for just 5 minutes and to see what happens. They looked at me like I was insane….

Keep reading at http://bit.ly/Interview_with_LKK

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Can You Get Closer to God by Having Sex?

The  young black man with an open-face and eager demeanor sat across from me on a blanket in a park in Harlem last night and smiled warmly.  The artists’ share we were both there for hadn’t started yet, and we had just been introduced.

“Do you like yoga?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you like reading?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.  “Do you?”

“Oh yes!” he leaned in. “I just finished reading an amazing book about celibacy.”

“Oh!” I said.  “Great.”

A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott.  It was amazing.  Really just amazing.”

“What were your takeaways?” I asked.

“Oh, she covered everything!” he said, leaning closer yet. “Just everything!  Foot binding being a kind of chastity belt.  Joan of Arc, who I love.  I just love her.  And Gandhi.”

“Why Gandhi?” I asked.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, almost aghast that I had to ask.  “Because Gandhi was a brahmachari!”

“A…what now?”

He explained that today the practice of brahmacharya loosely translates to practicing celibacy, or sticking to strict sexual controls (such as withholding semen) for the purpose of spiritual enlightenment.  He also explained the diet of one who practices brahmacharya (a diet he, too, adheres to), and described the spiritual discipline of a brahmachari (which he too was cultivating).  And over the course of our conversation, I began to get the impression that this warm young man was a brahmachari himself.

So I probably shouldn’t have said what I said next.

Which was: “I know the idea that sexual abstinence brings you closer to God has been around forever, but what if it’s wrong?  What if, actually, sex can bring us closer to God.”

The young man leaned back.

“What are you guys talking about over there?  Talk louder!” three young women across the blanket from us called.

“I said!” I hollered, “That I think that having sex can bring us closer to God!”

“Go on…” they cooed, scooting toward us.

“Okay,” I said.  “So, I was raised in a very conservative religious community.”  They nodded.  “And in this community, my friends and I were taught that sex outside of marriage was a sin, right?  And when I say sex, I don’t just mean intercourse.  I mean everything.  Thinking about sex.  ‘Making’ someone else think about sex by the way we dressed, or laughed, or flirted.  It was all equally ‘bad.’

“The Biblical illustration was that David’s sin of seeing Bathsheba bathing, and not looking away, was the same in God’s eyes and all of the sins that followed: David sleeping with Bathsheba, his killing her husband, and so on.”

“I hear you,” one woman chimed in.  “I was raised Catholic.”

“So my girlfriends and I,” I continued, ”we learned to shut down every part of ourselves that might have been construed as even remotely connected to sex or sexuality.  We scrutinized ourselves and if we found even the slightest sexual something, we shamed ourselves before our peers or our leaders had a chance to, calling ourselves bad, or sinful, or slutty, for doing things as small as wearing the wrong pair of shorts.  We created these boundaries inside of ourselves, these walls inside to keep out the parts of us we didn’t want there, designed to protect ourselves from ourselves, and protect others from us too.”

The women nodded again.

“Then,” I said, “I had sex.  In my mid-twenties, so pretty late, but I got there.  And it didn’t kill me.  Or anyone else.  So eventually I stopped fighting that I was a sexual person.  And when I did that, all of these boundaries, these walls that I had built up inside of me, they slowly came down.  And in the process I found that not only was I able to better connect with myself, and with others, especially my partner, but I also found myself more able to connect with…God.  I could see him and hear him better with the walls down.  It was incredible really, realizing how much closer I could be to God when I was being honest with myself, and thereby was able to be honest with him.”

“Oh totally!” one women said.  “Yes!”

Then she looked at the bramachari, who had pulled away from us, and was looking down at the blanket.  “But maybe it’s because you’re a woman,” she continued.  “Maybe men, they need to withhold, because of the way in which sex can overwhelm men, but women, they need to express their sexuality.  Because our power, our connection to God, is body-based, in our wombs even.”

“I don’t know,” another woman responded.  “It seems like men shouldn’t benefit from holding back any more than women.”

We all turned back to the brahmachari.

“What do you think?” I prodded.  “Can some people get closer to God by controlling their body, while others can get closer to God by embracing their body in all of its complexity?  And is the line between these two groups a gender line?”

He just stared at us, and suddenly I felt very sorry for having questioned a philosophy he seemed to feel so strongly about.  But the truth is, his philosophy…or rather, the philosophies of some people who think similarly to him…had a lot to do with my having hated myself growing up, and my friends having hated themselves too, because we were sexual to varying degrees and taught that this meant we could not be holy.

In the end, the group of artists and I all just shrugged and let it go. But thinking back on the conversation today, I wanted to create a space here to pick it back up if anybody would be down to.  What do you think? Is it possible to get closer to God by having sex?

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Which photo says “Fierce, Faithful and Free” to you?

I’ve been getting a little unsolicited flak about my photo on my Feminist.com column lately. The gist of it is that folks say I look a little too, well, sweet.  Meek.

So, my wildy talented friend Jessica Schwartz took a few new shots of me yesterday.  Which one’s your choice for my new Fierce, Faithful, and Free bio page photo?

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100 Extraordinary Muslim Women

The Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) is now announcing the top 100 Extraordinary Muslim Women responsible for positive, progressive change for Muslim women.

These are the women to watch.

And the women to remember.

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The Spice Girls

Two weeks before I was supposed to move across the country to begin Bible School, I told my parents that I might not want to be a missionary after all. Demonstrating a deep awesomeness, they almost instantly let go of their dream that their daughter would be an evangelical Christian missionary, and told me to find and follow my dream.  So I withdrew my acceptance to Bible College, and a year later, arrived at Sarah Lawrence College, arguable the most liberal liberal arts school in the nation.

Last weekend, I went back for my 10-year college reunion, (that’s me in the photo above looking off to my left), and soaked up the memories.

We all had nicknames at Sarah Lawrence. I was so obnoxiously plain—straight from a religious, Midwestern suburb—that I went by the “GAP Girl” or sometimes the “Token Straight Girl.”  Perhaps I should offer some context.  Both Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire, and JD Samson, from the feminist electropunk band, Le Tigre, were classmates of mine.  So, yeah, it was tough to stand out.  A friend of mine went by “the lesbian whose name fits her face.” And the five men named John were christened: Scary John, Baby John, Sporty John, Ginger John and Posh John.  Yes, after the Spice Girls.

Scary John was a writer.  He wore slippers with a long, ratty, purple bathrobe, and ambled around campus with a coffee mug in his hand, as though he’d just woken up and was out to pick up the morning paper.  He was always offering girls backrubs, which is why we called him scary.  Baby John was a feminine man who wore colored dog collars. Sporty John was part of what the rest of us named “the SLC frat”—a small cadre of men who could have passed as regular guys at a public school, despite their being artists.  Ginger John was a red-head.  And Posh John was rich.

Looking back 10 years after graduating, this particular set of nicknames stands out.  When I was in college, I was seriously seeking an image of womanhood I could get behind.  Evangelicalism had taught me that good women were feminine, demure, sweet, and childlike—in other words, little girls with long legs. And the secular media’s images of women were often no more grown.  It is fascinating to me, this preference for girls, and women’s subsequent girling, inside and outside of religious culture.  The difference is, the evangelical Christian church’s girling practices are about desexulizing women (throughout the long history of Christianity, women have symbolized temptation, woe, sex and sin, whereas girls have symbolized purity and innocence), whereas the secular world’s girling pratices sexualize. From cover girls, to calendar girls, to roller derby girls, to Hooters girls, to the Spice Girls.

But as far as I was concerned, the Spice Girls appealed more to little girls and gay men than to me and my girlfriends for a reason. My friends and I weren’t interested in girling, though it was hot stuff in the heyday of Third Wave Feminism; we were interested in figuring out what it meant to be grown.

So, instead of becoming Spice Girls ourselves, we “spiced” the few men on campus—ran them through girl-culture, nicknamed them based on imagined-attributes, and made them into pop-icons for us to trivialize, cliché, and desperately seek after. We gave the girl hat to them, and set about the hard work of figuring our own messes out.  And each of us, fumbling, struggling, seems to have found our way there.  Because I must say, ten years later, I was pretty impressed by the women I saw.

(Note: The top three photos in this post were taken by the gorgeous and talented Kate Scelsa.)

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Is God Eavesdropping?

This Monday, I wrote a friend an early morning email.  I am “overly ripe for re-engaging my soul-work,” I wrote him.  “So!  I’ve released my blog, launched an ongoing column at Feminist.com, and am now carving out time to give more support to folks doing some of my favorite work in the world (multi-religious progressive organizing with a focus on women of course).  All this to say, use me!  I stand ready to help.”

It’s funny how God listens in on such correspondences, how he listens in on all correspondences really.  Funny how God responds, whether or not we think we were talking to him. But when, really, are we not talking to him? For me, the line between prayer and living is blurry. If God is everywhere…and I believe that God is everywhere…then prayer is in everything.  Our prayers are in the way we move, sway, and sing; they are in the way we treat those we meet on the street; they are in our wishes; and most of all, they are in our words, no matter who we are speaking to.  Words are powerful things, which is why we must be so very careful when using them.

That early Monday morning email I sent to my friend?  It was God who first wrote back. (Though sure, my friend wrote back too.)

After sending the email, I hopped on a train to Baltimore. I was headed to the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center for a gathering hosted by Ask Big Questions, an initiative of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.  Ask Big Questions had invited college chaplains, religious student group representatives, and secular nonprofits who care about purpose and meaning (such as the nonprofit I work for) to come together over two days to discuss “what college could be” (and to feed the baby goats that the Pearlstone keeps).

But what I want to talk about here is what happened in the unscheduled time—over lunch and in the ladies room (where more than one of my best work partnerships have begun).  I want to talk about that, because it was during these times, the in between times, that I got to hear how campus leaders around the country have responded to President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge.  Do you remember this?  It was launched this time last year.  Obama invited institutions of higher education to commit to a year of interfaith and community service programming using a model similar to that of the Interfaith Youth Corps, an incredible project launched by the social entrepreneur, Eboo Patel (who sat on the adminstration’s advisory council when the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships was launched).  As I stood in line to use the rest room, or to pick up rice crispies, I heard about the new offices, new minors, and other exciting opportunities for interfaith service work being launched on campuses across the country.  And suddenly, it was plain as day how I could leverage my skills and my knowledge to support progressive multifaith organizing in a myriad of ways.

Would I have seen these opportunities had I not written an email that very morning saying that I was going to make time to volunteer to support work of this kind?  Would these conversations even have come up?  And if they had come up, would I have thought to say, “I think I can help you” rather than, “You are doing great work. Keep it up,” which would have certainly ended the conversation?

Sometimes I wonder if those of us with the tremendous freedom to make our own decisions are all living lives we’ve “prayed” for.  The artist who cries each night because she can’t pay her rent, did she once have a romantic vision of herself eating beans out of a can on the floor of her tiny New York City studio apartment, poor but surrounded by paintings?  The older gentleman who can’t seem to settle down with any of the fantastic women he meets though he tells his friends he wants a partner more than anything in the world, did he swear as a child that he would never wind up stuck in a bad marriage like his dad was? And those doing the most powerful work in the world today, I can’t imagine they are doing it without first having made the decision to be a changemaker, and most likely said it aloud.

Sometimes we make literal wishes and prayers.  Other times, we simply live our lives.  But more and more I’ve come to think that God listens, and even responds, either way.

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Fierce, Faithful, and Free

My column on my journey to becoming “Fierce, Faithful, and Free” just went live on Feminist.com!  Check out the first article, Tenor in Heels….

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