Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Nothing and Everything

"To know that I am nothing, that is wisdom; to know that I am everything, that is love and in between these two life moves.”

This proverb from my African proverb calendar has been rolling around in my head for days now.  It’s been rolling around as I have been reading Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, a book I read years ago and just finished reading again in preparation for Christian Peacemaker Team training. 

I mentioned the proverb to a friend who asked how I’d interpret it.  I think I said something like this:

“Well, to say that we are nothing is recognition that we are a very small … tiny … miniscule piece of this world, a tiny fraction of all that is.  To say that we are everything is to recognize God within us, to know that we, like everyone and everything else, were created by God, and, as such, have God, Love, the only thing that truly matters, within us.  Love connects us to everyone and everything else and makes us a part of everything.  When we recognize our interconnectedness, we see that we are simultaneously nothing and everything.”  Knowing we are nothing, we do not view ourselves as more important than anyone else.  Knowing we are everything, we nonetheless know that we are important. It is knowledge that requires a delicate balance between humility and ego.  If we stray too far from the middle point, our self-confidence ends up in one unhealthy extreme or another. 

I think nearly half of the Walter Wink book is now highlighted in blue.  I’m sure I’ll quote from it more than once in the coming days.  Let me start here: 

“We are alienated from God, each other, nature, and our own souls, and cannot find the way back by ourselves.” 

Our alienation, when we fail to notice our interconnectedness, causes us to move towards nothingness, but not the nothingness of wisdom where we understand that our smallness is part of a larger whole, but rather a nothingness of disconnection, of isolation.  When we feel alienated, we may need to be invited back, led back, pulled back towards everything.  This process takes time and happens over and over again.  It involves many steps forwards and backwards over the course of our lives.  When we are able to move closer to God, to each other, to nature, to our own souls, we move towards our everything nature, to the midpoint. 

I know I have a long way to go, but I think about where I was a year ago and where I am now and I’m sure I’m moving in the right direction. 

One year ago, I was spending my final days in India with friends who had invited me to a family wedding.  Prior to being with them in India, I only knew them from the confines of their restaurant (Taj Palace, for those who live in Louisville) and occasional encounters at international festivals.  In India, I was not only invited to the wedding, but was welcomed into their home and treated with as much care and love as any member of their family.  This kind of welcome is overwhelming.  It is humbling.  It is heart-breaking in its beauty.  When I say heart-breaking, I mean it not in a sad way, but in a Grinch-heart-swelling-with-love sort of way.  I wouldn't call myself a Grinch, but I wasn't always sure how to accept the generosity that was freely offered to me.  I didn’t know very many people at the wedding and didn’t speak the primary language I heard, so I sometimes retreated into the "safety" of aloneness, which really only led me to loneliness, to self-alienation, to foolish nothingness.  My actions did not stop my hosts from continuing to draw me out, to invite me into their lives.  I was invited to several neighbor/relatives’ houses, despite language barriers.  During my days with the family, I didn’t know all the customs and rituals and when invited to join in, I’m certain that I sometimes responded American-ly rather than Indian-ly, possibly appearing rude, though rudeness was the opposite of my intent.  

Even with my foibles, I was treated as an honored guest.  Thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes.  My acquaintances-turned-friends-turned-family did their best to invite me from self-limiting nothingness into their freely offered everything-ness.

And then there was Christmas Eve this year.  For as long as I've been alive, my extended family has spent Christmas Eve evening together at my parents’ house.  During my life, our family has grown considerably, the amount of chaos has ebbed and flowed, depending on the number of young children running around, and our gift-giving rituals have changed.  Of all the Christmas Eves I can remember, this year’s was my favorite.  I have spent many a Christmas Eve feeling shy and unconfident among my own family, without the excuses that I had in India of language barriers or knowing no one.  Like in India, my feelings had nothing to do with the way anyone treated me.  My family has been more than good to me. 

Last night I was in a very different place (not just physically) from last year and  Christmas Eves past - I did not feel like an insignificant nothing.  I was confident of the everything, of the Love, within, not just me, but everyone present.  I knew that I was a small part of something much larger, most immediately, my family.  My mom invited me to say the blessing before we ate, which was a great honor.  Squeezing all 38 of us into the dining room, holding hands for a few quiet moments, we made our bond as family tangible. 

Several years ago, we stopped exchanging presents on Christmas Eve, so the evening became simply a time to enjoy each other’s company.  Last night I felt engaged and connected to everyone I got to spend time with.  To my aunt who announced her recent Scrabble winning streak against me (I need to up my game J). To two of my uncles who told me they appreciated reading my blog to get “the other side of the story.” One also told me about his health struggles and victories (quitting smoking!); the other shared stories of when he was young and loved to check out books from the library about explorers.   I enjoyed the company of my cousins who asked about the next steps on my path. I was also happy to hear some of their stories: recent or upcoming moves, business ventures, new jobs, and a story about taking care of the neighbor’s 70-pound turtle.  I loved spending a few moments with my nephews, and niece, and my cousins’ children, as we watched videos from the Santa-tracker.  It was wonderful to sit next to my grandma, the 94-year-old matriarch of the family, who has a special prayer she says for me every day when I am traveling.  She has said it so often that she has it memorized. 

And, beautifully, I felt an equal connection to those I didn't get a chance to be with.  The heart-swelling continues.

And so life moves. 

Between nothing and everything,

alienation and connection,

foolishness and wisdom,

fear and love.  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Call

"This is the ultimate power of the Call: It's a summons to the world to devote itself to God ... If you put your life in my hands, he suggests, you will be rewarded ... In God's beckoning, the sacrifice is known, even the reward is known, but the route, the location, even the deliverer of the message are unknown. To be a descendant of Abraham is to live in that gap - to glance back at your native land, to peer ahead to your nameless destination, and to wonder, Do I have the courage to make the leap?"
                                                                                                       - Bruce Feiler, Abraham

Do I have the courage to make the leap?

More specifically:

I've been invited to be a part of Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) training in preparation for working with the organization over the next three years.  In a few weeks I will go to Chicago for a month of CPT training, but will I graduate from training?  Will  learn what I need to learn? Am I cut out for the hard, sometimes dangerous, often stressful, work of oppression-challenging and peace-making that CPT does? Am I as ready as I say I am to put my whole body where my mouth is, to put my whole self into God's hands? Am I ready to work in Colombia, Iraq, or Palestine as an advocate for justice?

My answer is I don't know.  I think of the times I have allowed fear to guide me, the times I've run from God's open hands, not trusting that they would hold me with care.  There have been many such times.  Too many.  Times when I looked into the eyes of someone who is hurting, knowing that I was capable of alleviating some small part of their pain, and turned away.  Times when I listened to someone say hateful and hurtful things and, rather than challenging them, was silent.  Times when I have simply been too lazy to bother reaching out, speaking out, acting on the values I profess to hold, even when I am capable of doing so.

Who's to say that I won't run again?  Who's to say that the invitation to personal comfort won't tempt me more than the sometimes difficult path of personal integrity, of justice, towards a peace that seems impossible?

I write here, in part, so that I won't run away, so that I hold myself accountable in a public way.  As a result, I know the warmth of God's hands through your love and support, whether I feel the physical gesture when I see you or the embrace of your words.  Writing keeps me more faithful to the Call, more steady as I walk through and towards the unknown, towards the place where I will not only be invited to walk ahead, but to leap.

Do I have the courage to make the leap?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Thinking and Knowing

One of the reasons I love teaching is that sometimes students have amazing insights that they associate with me.  It is true that at times I say things that "click" with students, that flip a switch that brings a little more light to their understanding.  Other times I'm given undeserved credit for a student's evolution of thinking. Those are the times that I learn more from students than I teach, yet somehow I get credit for bringing them to new wisdom. That happened recently.

A couple weeks ago, I had the great privilege to talk to middle-schoolers at St. Leonard School abut my experiences in India.    My goals for the presentation were not only to teach students about India, but also to help them see how much they have in comparison to others in the world, to foster a sense of gratitude and sharing, and to empower them to step beyond their comfort zone towards the "other," whoever that may be.   To make these goals clear, I issued four challenges at the end of my presentation:  1) to make a gratitude list, 2) to get rid of things they no longer use and give them away, 3) to add something to their Christmas list that didn't benefit them (such as a donation to OxfamHeifer International, or a local charity), and 4) to step outside of their comfort zone by talking to someone they don't know or trying something new.  Perhaps I could have challenged them further, but I thought the above might be a good start.

Yesterday I had the equally great privilege of reading letters they wrote me as a follow-up to my presentation. In reading the letters, I see that between my talk and teacher follow-up, students did pick up on my intended messages. Certainly, many were intrigued by India itself, by the differences they saw between my students there and their own lives here.  Some told me how they had responded to the challenges I issued.  One gave away two garbage bags of clothes.  Another talked to someone new.  Some simply said that they wanted to follow through on the challenges.

And then I read the last letter, written by a seventh grader.  When I write above about undeserved credit, I'm referring to her letter.  Perhaps something I said triggered her thinking process, but she took what I said further than anything I communicated (a teacher's greatest hope).

I'd like to share her words, because they offer a wisdom worth repeating.

Dear Miss Cory, 

Thank you for coming to our school and teaching us about your trip to India. I really enjoyed the stories you had to share.  Thank you. 

I learned that you can make a huge difference in someone's life, or even a large impact on the world. I also learned what other kids my age have to go through each day. It made me think outside of my own life and about someone else's. 

When I first walked in, I remembered thinking: What could one person do to impact the world? But I walked out knowing what I could do to change the world for better, not for the worse. I also realized the difference between thinking and knowing. Thinking leads to knowing, but the difference between the two is phenominal. Thinking leads to doubting yourself and your abilities, where knowing is realizing your abilities and using them to change the world.  Finally, my question to you is: If one person can make a difference in someone's life, what can we all do together? 

St. Leonard student

How can we help each other take our doubt-full (but necessary) thinking to the empowerment of knowing?  What can we do together when we know and trust our abilities, know and trust the abilities of others, and know we can use them to change the world?  The world of possibilities grows...

Friday, December 14, 2012


Ten months ago today from Nablus, Palestine, I wrote about heaviness in my heart. That day it was because of the destruction of a community center and the arrests of young children in the Silwan community of Jerusalem, as well as the arrest of one of my students in Nablus.

Today, my heart is again heavy, as I’m sure yours is, because of the death of 20 children and 7 adults (6 victims and the shooter) at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

My heart is heavy because this is the third major mass shooting we’ve heard about in the US this year.  My heart is heavy because the number of those killed in the mass shootings is a small number compared to the 12,000 or more people killed every year in US due to gun violence. Many of those single killings we never hear about in the news.   

I am angry at those who say guns aren’t the problem, that guns don’t kill people, that people kill people.  The US has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.  It may be true that not all homicides in the US involve guns, but 60% of them do.  Sixty percent of the people killing people here happen to do so with guns.  It may be true that other countries have a higher per capita incidence of gun violence than the US, but most (maybe all) of those countries are in the developing world, not the developed world.  What does that say? I am angry that some people insist that more guns are the means to decrease violence. 

I am more committed to my own pledge of nonviolence and the peace-making I hope to do with Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Today, shortly before I heard about the shooting, I was working in my garden, noticing the plants that have died back for winter but whose new springtime growth is already evident.  I thought my blog post would be about the cycle of life and death, about resurrection, about how, somehow, life finds a way to push through destruction and death. 

It’s a hard day to see that truth.  But I will cling to it.  I will cling to the belief that even as families grieve, there is a Life-force working that will help them heal, a Life-force embodied in the presence of their friends and family, a Life-force embodied by strangers praying for them.  Like Fred Rogers, I will cling to the belief in the helpers in the world:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”
I will cling to the belief that there are more helpers than evil-doers, that goodness is stronger than evil.  I will cling to the belief that, with time, hope emerges from heartbreak.  I will cling to the belief in the ultimate Incarnation of Good, of Justice, of Peace, the very one Christians wait for during this time of Advent. I will seek the Incarnation in the world around me. Believing that I am a part of the Body of Christ, I will seek to be one small part of the living Incarnation.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


"Have you been writing like crazy?"  A friend asked me this a few days ago.

Um, no.

I've been distracted lately.  By many good things.

In less than a month, I'll be in Chicago, a few days into a month of Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) training.  The training is preparation for work as a human rights monitor and accompanier in Palestine, Iraq, or Colombia.  At this point, I do not know where I'll end up working, when I'll leave, or how long I'll be in one of those places.  I trust that when I need to know, I'll know.

Between now and the time I leave for Chicago, I have a long to-do list.  I'm back to fund-raising for CPT.  I've been making more card sets and have branched out into home-made Christmas cards.  The Christmas card-making began one day when I was feeling glum and needed something to lift my spirit.  Amazing how cutting and pasting, making something new, can do that.  The cards have been fun to make and have gone over well where I've sold them.

I have a writing workshop and a retreat to write.  I also plan to write and promote several talks and other workshops for schools, churches, and other communities.  Writing these brings new and unexpected challenges - the best kind, ones that will stretch me and, if done well, will stretch others to do better and be better.  I had the great privilege to give a talk to middle schoolers about India a few days ago.  I hope to do more such talks.  Thinking about and planning these talks, workshops, and retreats get me back into education-mode.  Educating is in my bones.

My "home" study.  I am gathering answers, testimonies, stories, poems, about what home means to different people.  If you're interested in thinking about "home," click on the link above.  I'd love to know your thoughts. As I think about the idea more, I realize the vastness of its potential.  What does "home" mean to someone who's homeless? An immigrant? A refugee? A soldier? I can't wait to find out.

Then there's Christmas. I decorated my house over the last few days.  It feels particularly festive to do so this year, because last year, Advent and Christmas both passed without much fanfare.  I spent Christmas Day with Sikh friends in India, as wedding preparations and festivities happened around me.  The only indications of Christmas were the molasses crinkle cookies my mom sent to me (thanks, Mom!) and a phone call with my family.

All of the above have occupied me and distracted me from writing.  And then...

In less than 3 months, I turn 40. Seeing the number as I type and realizing it'll soon attach itself to me is a little strange.  However, 39 has been good to me, 38 too, so I'll try to keep moving in whatever direction I'm supposed to move and trust that, even if it's not all OK, it'll all be OK.  The notion of turning 40 doesn't distract me in the same way that the above activities do, but it does give me pause.

The milestone invites me to consider the worth of what I'm doing these days.  Am I using my time in a way that honors me, my gifts, other people? I hope so.  I'm trying.  Are the things distracting me from writing, which I call one of my primary goals right now, worth my time?

As I think about that question, the answer seems to be yes.  It is worth my time to engage in creative expression.  The process nourishes my soul and the products feed the spirits of others.  It is worth my time to use my love for education - whether the head-learning or heart-learning varieties - to try to plant seeds of the same in others.  If we're learning, we're growing.  I hope to encourage growth in myself and others as long as I'm alive.  It is worth my time to think about "home."  It is a vitally important notion that shapes who we are and how we live and I hope my exploration will naturally take me back to my stated goal of writing. It is worth it to celebrate this time, to live in the Advent season of waiting, of expectation, of hope, to feel what these mean in my own life that is pregnant with possibilities both known and unknown.

And so I realize: maybe the distractions aren't distractions at all.  Maybe they're the real stuff I need to be paying attention to.