Voicelessness

[This is my continued reflection from a previous post, which you can read here.] 

I used to ask my friends if you had to choose losing either your eyesight or hearing, what would choose?  A rather grim hypothetical state of affairs, but such was my pondering back in those days.  We would go around answering the question and when it was my turn, I would always say I would choose to lose my hearing instead of my sight.  People were usually surprised to hear that since I’m a musician and hearing is so pivotal to what I do.  But when I envision not being able to see a beautiful sunset as opposed to not being able to hear a beautiful piece of music, my heart seems to ache more for the sunset.  It’s hard to understand.  It’s also a bit ironic since I’ve been annually losing my voice for the past few years.  Now, THAT, I would NEVER choose to lose.  It was so far from my mind that it didn’t even enter the discussion.  But alas, it is my current reality.

In the past I was too self-involved to even notice my surroundings during my voicelessness but this time, things have been a bit different.  Since all I could muster was a “loud” whisper for the past few days, I noticed people around me starting to speak on my behalf.  I was thankful in some instances but in others I noticed some assumptions being made about what I would do or say, which were off-target.  Sometimes, I was left quite surprised at what some people were thinking about me, about how I would react or what I would say about a situation.  I was being spoken for but misrepresented.  I didn’t have the strength (or the voice) to rebut any of those assumptions or claims.  I couldn’t explain myself, couldn’t express my feelings adequately; it was hard to declare my needs and desires.  I imagined a few more days of this and I would start to feel ignored and perhaps even nonexistent.

The world is a very different place when one does not have a voice.

Those in our world who don’t have a voice – the marginalized, the poor, the disadvantaged, the abused, the weak, the young, the old – live every day without being heard.  There is a kind of powerlessness that results from lacking a voice.  I wonder all the ways that such people may be (mis)represented, perhaps being spoken on behalf of in error, being victims of false assumptions.

I’m glad social justice has become trendy in our society.  But I wonder if we’re really taking time to consider and know the people we are so committed to help.  If we really understand what it is they need and want.  What they want to say if given a voice.

I wonder what would happen if we didn’t look at them as them. But start to see that we’re the same.  People who long to be heard.

I wonder what they would say.

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My Voice, or the Lack Thereof

7 days ago, I lost my voice.

I had been up all night before coughing and coughing and couldn’t get a wink of sleep in.  I got out of bed at 6:30a Sunday morning, knowing I had 3 services to sing through at church that day, just hoping I would get through it and be able to recover the following week.

I warmed up my voice before morning rehearsal and sang through 2 songs during 1st service before the higher range of my voice gave out.   It got worse and worse and by the time 3rd service ended, I had no lower, mid or high range. My voice was completely gone.

I don’t panic when this happens anymore, at least, not immediately.  I’ve lost my voice once a year for the past 3 or 4 years.  I’ve lost count.  It goes away and then after a few days it comes back.  The first year it happened, it was sorta traumatizing. I had an important audition that I botched because my voice wasn’t fully recovered.  I lost a few notes at the top of my range that year that haven’t fully returned to me.

The first couple of times I lost my voice, I immediately jumped head-first into a whirl of blame and accusation. Something along the lines of – God took my voice away from me because I’ve been putting my identity in my ability to sing.  He’s doing this to teach me a lesson.  I’m idolizing my voice and hoarding the praise I receive from it.  I need to rid myself of this pride.  

Then starting from around Day 3 or 4, I would start to spiral pretty quickly – My voice is never returning. I’m never going to sing again.  And if I don’t have my voice, then who am I?  What will people think of me? 

I did a lot of soul-searching on those days.  Talk about not knowing who I am.

This time around, maybe I was a little tired of the self-doubt and panic, so I resolved to turn to wonder. I asked myself, How is God coming to me in my voicelessness and imposed silence?  Instead of the usual spiral downward, I started to hear a different story and made some revealing observations.

Today I hear my lower range clawing its way back to what is hopefully a voice that I recognize when it returns.  I’m slowly learning to let go of the things I thought are at the core of who I am.  They still define me to a large degree, and I’m glad they do, but I won’t be destroyed if and when I lose them.  I suppose existence goes much deeper than what we imagine sometimes.

To be continued…

Inner / Outer World

Every person has an inner world and an outer world.

I believe our truest selves emerge when the two align.  Transformation only occurs when we are moving towards the space where those two worlds overlap and become more congruent.  How do we move towards that space?  I believe a large part of that work begins when we invite others, those we trust who provide safe spaces for us, in to our inner world.  We start to let them in little by little.  It is in that place of intimacy that the journey of transformation begins.  I’ve found that when my inner world is exposed to the light of true relationship, when I let it all hang out… let the good, the ugly, the true, the honest, the painful and broken parts of myself out to another soul, that is where my true self begins to emerge.

Make no mistake.  This place is risky and can be absolutely terrifying.  Being vulnerable often is even when we are with people we trust.  It feels like we’re exposing ourselves.  That’s probably because we are.  We start to ask questions such as,

Will you still like me afterwards?  

Will we still be friends? 

Will you look down on me? 

Will you expose me to others?

Sometimes we get answers we don’t like to those questions.  But once in awhile certain people walk into our lives who are willing to journey with us on this difficult road.  And when we take these steps toward intimacy we realize the reward is great.  Way too great to ignore.  We experience freedom unlike anything we have known before.  We get to see a closer picture of who God created us to be.

Once we begin to see our true self it’s hard to imagine going back to the way we were.  Suddenly the dark places where we used to hide feel too dark.  Too isolating. Too lonely.  We are drawn to a more liberated life.  We also find that shame, the cloak we once wore so comfortably, begins to feel very unbecoming of us.  We feel more courage to share our selves and make connections.  Our inner and outer worlds become more reconciled.  We allow ourselves to make mistakes.  We allow ourselves to feel loved and accepted.

It’s a wonder how we lived any other way for so long.

Sabbath Reflection: Part 2

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post called “Sabbath Rebellion: Part 1” hoping to finish the series.  I wrote 2 more posts thereafter, wrapping up my thoughts on the topic and left both of those in draft form through these passing months.  Something inside me just didn’t want to continue to unearth the depths of this issue.  Now, I’m a bit confounded by the whole thing so I had to change the title to “Reflection” instead.  The word “rebellion” sounds like I’m roaring back or something, and this just hasn’t been that kind of battle.  I’ve been more cowering at the thought of Sabbath.  A friend recently suggested that I try to think more about my struggle with unproductive/open/free/inactive/restful/sabbath space.  Honestly, I’m sure now that I’m quite afraid of it.

When I rest, I feel lost.

It’s not just about not knowing where I am.  In that space, I’m not sure WHO I am anymore.  In that space, I suddenly throw myself into an abyss of shoulds, oughts, and musts and I am urged out of my resting place into a frenzy of activity.  I cannot count how many times I was supposed to have a “rest day” but after about 10 minutes of resting, I went into a massive clean-out of my apartment, or suddenly felt the need to go through that closet I hadn’t touched in 5 years, or scrub down my shower, or re-organize my CD library (yes, I still have those…).  I know for a fact that I clean when I’m stressed.  So that begs the question, why am I stressed when I rest?  That seems like an oxymoron (and a rhyme).  But at least, when I clean, I know who I am.  I’m a cleaner.

Sometimes when I think about human nature, or just my own nature, I remember the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert after God delivered them out of Egypt.  They actually told Moses that they were better off as slaves.  I think some of them (most of them?) were wishing they could go back!  I always remember that story incredulously and do a couple of SMHs because seriously?  How could you want to go back to SLAVERY?  Do you not remember what that was like?

I also think about Brooks, a character in The Shawshank Redemption.  [SPOILER ALERT]  He was in prison for 50 years and then finally released when he was 72 years old.  He never acclimated to his new life and after a short while, he ended up taking his own life.  That scene always breaks my heart.  But why Brooks!  Surely, freedom is better than imprisonment?  Brooks knew who he was in prison: an inmate, a brother, then a librarian.  Freedom was disorienting to him.

And then it dawns on me.  Human nature hasn’t changed, has it.  Basically when I go into my activity-frenzy and resist the Sabbath, that is essentially what I am doing.  I’m telling God, no thanks.  I’d rather go back to work and not rest.  I’d rather be a slave.  I’d rather be imprisoned.  It’s more comfortable there.  Stopping, resting and delighting are extremely uncomfortable and disorienting to me.

When I clean, I’m a cleaner.  When I plan, I’m a planner.  In the past, when I worked, I was an accountant.  Now when I work, I am a pastor and worship leader.  When I sing, I’m a singer.  When I write songs, I’m a songwriter.

When I rest I am a nobody.

And no one likes nobodies.  Nobodies don’t belong and nobodies are not loved.  I want to be liked.  I want to belong.  And I want to be loved.  So much.

That idea about being a nobody though… it’s not the entire truth, is it?  And perhaps that’s yet another reason this God, the Creator of the Universe and Lover of Mankind, is so compelling to me.  Because in the sheer silence of nothingness, God is whispering the exact opposite.  You are fully accepted.  You are fully loved.  You are mine. 

That sounds so cliché when I re-read it.  And that still, small voice is so counter-EVERYTHING and so unbelievable that I usually tend to brush it aside and do, do, do.  Work, work, work.  Prove, prove, prove.  Earn, earn, earn.

There is a mind-blowing difference between working in order to be loved and working because I am already loved.

I choose the latter.  And I will rest.

That is the way of Sabbath.

That is the way of God.

On Being a Unique Snowflake…

One of my favorite movies of all time is Fight Club.  I have a weak stomach and I can’t watch most of the actual fighting scenes and there are definitely some scenes I wouldn’t watch with a 13 year old (or my parents, for that matter) but there is something deeply profound about that whole idea of knowing our true selves and the inner and outer worlds we tend to want to keep separated at arms-length from one another.

In one scene (not a real spoiler here, I hope), the head honcho, Tyler Durden, uses a very particular phrase to train his men:

“You are not special.  You’re not a beautiful or unique snowflake.”

Hmm.

Then he goes on to say, “You’re the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”

Thanks for the encouragement, dude.

There was a time when I believed that maybe I wasn’t unique at all.  That belief often sent me into a deep depression.  I thought, What is the point of living then?  If I’m no different than any other person and I have no unique purpose in life, what is the point of anything?

But actually that’s not true at all, is it?  In fact, I’ve embraced quite the opposite – that I was uniquely created by God, that I was formed and shaped by him, that there is a unique purpose to which he is calling me.

I also think, however, there is a flip side to this concept and there is something to be said about those harsh phrases Tyler Durden utters.  There are things about me that are true of all human beings.  In that sense, I’m not unique or special at all.  More specifically, I was created for relationship.  I need intimacy.  I need closeness with another human being.  And in order to attain that closeness I have to invite others in to my inner world.  There’s really no other way around it.

The thing is, I have no problem letting others see the nice, good and righteous parts of my inner (and outer) world but it’s really the crappy stuff I have a hard time sharing.  I mean, it really feels like I’m putting myself out there.  It is so scary.  But I realize it’s absolutely necessary to establish intimacy in a relationship.  And sometimes I will be rejected by people here and there when I share, which makes me want to crawl up in a ball and hide in the corner forever.  The fact that I let others in doesn’t necessarily guarantee intimacy or reciprocation.  But I try again because I now know I need intimacy in a relationship in order to be fully alive and move closer to the true self I was created to be.  And the more I journey through this life I’m able to better discern who the right people are to be vulnerable with.  They’re out there – those people who provide safe spaces for us, environments of grace where I can come as I am.  There is no judgment, there is no shame, no finger pointing, no shaking of the head.  They just allow us to be.  This is the place I can muster up the courage to let them in.  And it is in this place I find the heart of God.

So, I think I am a unique snowflake AND I am the all-singing all-dancing crap of the world.

And I’m alright with that.

Sabbath Rebellion: Part 1

A few weeks ago, Steve and I were walking back from Flushing Meadows-Corona Park with Bandit (my seester’s dog – we were doggie-sitting) when I saw a Jewish man ask a random guy on the street to press his car key for him so he could get into his car.  “It’s the Sabbath, you see… I can’t press the button.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

We live in somewhat of a Bukharan Jewish enclave here in Queens and we’re very familiar with what happens when the sun goes down every Friday night.  Suddenly the streets get quieter, store owners lock up their stores, there are less cars on the road, and there is a kind of calm that comes over the neighborhood.  For the next 24 hours, it’s like we’re living in a completely different area than we’ve lived in the other 6 days of the week.  It’s a strange experience at first but we have gotten used to it and we love it now.  Less people and less cars on the road means, for 24 hours, we feel less stress and more free to walk around and explore the neighborhood.  We are beneficiaries of the Sabbath that our neighbors are intentionally practicing.  I find this quite profound.

I remember saying to myself at the end of Lent season a few years ago (during which our church practiced Sabbath-keeping as a community) that I would try to continue to keep the Sabbath.  Honestly, I had not considered it seriously again until I took this new job 3 months ago.  Apparently, it’s a strongly suggested practice for all staff members at New Life Fellowship.  This place highly values rest and almost makes it a requirement.

Requirement to rest…….?  

What kind of workplace is this?

Pardon my phrasing here, but, I suck at resting.  For some of you reading this, you’re thinking that I’m crazy.  Why would I resist rest?  For others, I know you know exactly what I mean.  When I took the job, I knew I would have to deal with this area of my life that just wasn’t working very well for me.  Then, to rub it in my face, it was talked about again a few weeks ago at church.  Then they preached on it again a week after.  I knew it was time to dig a little deeper into why Sabbath-keeping is so difficult for me.

I’m not a workaholic but I am a productive-aholic.  So even when I’m not “working”, I have a compulsive urge to do something that has immediate results that I can point to and say, hey, I got that done.  I’m pretty sure this is why I’m a highly administrative person, even though my true self doesn’t enjoy administrative tasks.  Administrative tasks always (or almost always) produce tangible, visible results.  I don’t really want to clean, but I like to clean because I can point to a tidy room and say, yes, I accomplished this.  I don’t want to work as an accountant but I did it for 12 years because there are specific daily duties that I completed where I was able to say, yep, that’s all done.  Somewhere deep inside, idleness and open-endedness, including things like resting, reading, watching movies, taking a walk, writing a piece of music, were very much deemed as “unproductive”.  I absolutely enjoy each of these activities but delighting was not a value of mine for a long time so it felt like a waste of time to engage in such activities.

What a sad person I was!  Literally!

At New Life, we teach people that the Sabbath includes these 4 elements:

Stop. 

Rest. 

Delight. 

Contemplate. 

What I’m slowly (very slowly) learning is that Sabbath is a wonderful gift.  The more I resist Sabbath, the more silly I find myself as I say, “No, God!  I will not rest!  I will not delight!”  If I don’t say YES to God, the giver of Sabbath, I miss out on an amazing opportunity to experience him in my inactivity.  So I continue on this journey to dig deeper into, what I call, my Sabbath Rebellion.

You came like winter snow…

A couple of months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find an e-mail from someone who had written a beautiful blog post about her experience of the holiday season. She had remembered a conversation we had years ago about how much I value brokenness in a person. I ruminated a bit and wrote this in response:

… I suppose my own philosophy of life has morphed a bit through the process.  Before, I viewed life as a steady march toward death and eventual, glorious restoration by Christ.  Very dramatic and emo.  Now I view life as a steady march from death to life, a gradual redemption – but only if we choose to live it.  Much less drama and a lot more hard work…

I confess I’ve been completely ravished by the very attractive idea of sudden and dramatic change.  I love hearing the emotionally-charged rags-to-riches story, the underdog coming from behind and shattering expectations by winning, that one heroic act of someone rescuing another from a dire situation.  And I viewed my own life from a similar lens.  I thought someone would surely give me wings to fly away as a child or an influential person would scoop me up from my misery and give me a music career.

Some of these dramatic stories are real and should absolutely be celebrated.  We may even experience them every now and then.  But the difficult reality is that most of life and most transformation is painstakingly slow. And gradual.  I take a couple of steps forward then I take a step back.  Sometimes two or three.

I wonder about how we expect God to show up with glorious, dramatic fanfare on a huge cumulus cloud, with trumpets blaring and thunder crashing.  Or just that he would show up and answer our very fervent prayer in a split second, rescue us from our debt, sickness, overall despondency in one grandiose, cinematic, and redemptive act.  And sometimes, he does. But the truth is most of the time, he comes without us ever noticing – small, quiet, slow, and humble.  He entered the earth that way.  Such things to ponder in the middle of this snow-laden season.

I confess oftentimes I fool myself into thinking that the slow and steady is not the way life works and I use my self-inflicted paralysis as an excuse to just not. do. anything.  As we slowly enter a new season, I hope to be ever attentive to the slow and quiet, and treasure greatly the small and humble.

Last Days of Singlehood: Part 4

The other day, a mentor and friend told us that the most difficult thing to give to someone, our spouse will require of us. That truth just destroyed me. I know it and yet I have no idea what that even means. I’m scared as hell but there’s also a deep ‘yes’ that resonates in my heart. I wonder if anyone can actually be “ready for marriage”, as they say.  We’ve gone through some of the best pre-marital counseling anyone can do and I’ve been part of a community that has deep roots in relationship building. Many books have been recommended to me but I wonder if reading a book at this point can change my life or approach to marriage.  Everyone claims to have the 3 best ways to sustain a happy marriage.  I’m sure there is some truth to most, if not all such claims.

I’ve learned loving someone is a discipline.  And that’s a discipline I’m willing to embrace fully to be with Steve.

Last Days of Singlehood: Part 3

Sometimes I feel guilty that I’m getting married because I never wanted marriage that badly. I don’t dwell in the thought for long because it’s impossible not to feel grateful and absolutely overjoyed to marry someone like Steve.  And I’ve come to realize (through some beautiful and some ugly moments) how much I need him. But what about all those singles out there who are searching and searching?  All those who desire to be married?  Why do I get to go now?  I don’t subscribe to formulaic paths leading to marriage. It’s just not that simple. It’s different and happens differently. And for some people, it never happens. That’s a reality I have a hard time accepting.

Last Days of Singlehood: Part 2

I feel all kinds of emotions I never knew I had. They say it’s impossible to numb just one emotion. If you numb sadness then you numb joy too, and all those other emotions in between and all around.  I’m hopeful and scared, happy and terrified all at the same time. I feel so loved, more than ever, but I also feel so vulnerable and exposed. They say these kinds of feelings will intensify as two people become closer.

I never liked roller coasters because I don’t like the extremes of that anticipation going up and the awful stomach-turned-upside-down feeling as you go down. So I always stayed on the ground at amusement parks, and ended up being the bag lady, holding everyone else’s bags while they went on rides. That’s been my life. I’ve mostly been the bag lady watching other people ride the ups and downs of married life.  I’ve preferred to be the bag lady until now but I guess this lady’s gotta go on the ride sometime. And one of those times has come.