A different kind of rain, but the same kind of grace

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A rainy New Orleans painting by artist Debra Hurd

While in Belfast I wrote a blogpost called ‘Rain Is Grace’ and last week while working on an article for the Presbyterian Outlook, I couldn’t help thinking about the rain again in New Orleans. Here’s the article I wrote that’ll be published in the Presbyterian Outlook in a few months!

“Living in New Orleans, the sun has been a welcome and faithful resident, greeting me in the mornings on our balcony as I sip coffee and watch the city come alive. From the beginning of this YAV year, gulf coast living appeared to be opposite from Emerald Isle living, but I was wrong.  At the start of spring, rain came to New Orleans in powerful, electric waves: a visiting friend I didn’t know I wanted, or needed, until it came back into my life.

Rain, like grace, comes in different forms throughout our lives. During my YAV year in Belfast it lived right around the corner and we became close friends. It was a part of Ireland’s history, its people, its beauty and its inspiration. Dampness would linger in the air from the consistent, calm mist which gave life and vibrancy to its rolling green hills.  Showers caused strangers to become friends in the shelter of pubs and cafes, and a hint of sun would brighten the grey skies with the most colorful rainbows. The rain in Belfast taught me that God’s grace is always surrounding us, and freely given.

In New Orleans, the rain is teaching me that faith is contradictory and counterintuitive.  Here it’s often a powerful downpour, slowing traffic on freeways and flooding canals. 

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Stormy evening outside of Lakeview Presbyterian Church

It comes without want or warning, causing unplanned stillness to occur in the deep waters. Almost twelve years later, not a day has gone by during my time here in which Hurricane Katrina isn’t mentioned in conversation – whether it’s at the library working with a patron on a resume, or overhearing strangers in a restaurant. Rain has taught this city about resilience, and hope growing out of devastation. Meanwhile during this YAV year I’ve done a lot of “unlearning” about race, religion, and politics – from both literal and figurative stormy stories of others – and how it all relates to my faith and identity as a white, female, American Christian. I’ve started to grapple with my own overwhelming pursuit of perfection in myself and the world, letting waves of fear and anxiety be destructive forces rather than swimming lessons. I’m re-learning how to pursue God in the present, letting His grace be sufficient for each wave.

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After a thunderstorm at City Park

For rain, a falling contradiction coexisting in both YAV years, I’m grateful.  Rain is an unexpected healer when we feel burnt out, restless or anxious. Rain makes us pause, slowing down long enough to recognize, and accept, the grace that’s being poured out for us. Rain destroys at the same time it rejuvenates, but grace remains unchanged. Rain is teaching me that the demand for perfection doesn’t mean believing we are above and beyond perfection, but consciously forgiving and including imperfection in our lives. It teaches us that spiritual growth isn’t linear, but exists in the waves – the changing waters that bring both hurricanes and rainbows. The course of nature can’t be altered anymore than our faith journeys, but we can find God’s grace in the rain.”

For Equilibrium, a Blessing:
Like the joy of the sea coming home to shore,
May the relief of laughter rinse through your soul.

As the wind loves to call things to dance,
May your gravity by lightened by grace.

Like the dignity of moonlight restoring the earth,
May your thoughts incline with reverence and respect.

As water takes whatever shape it is in,
So free may you be about who you become.

As silence smiles on the other side of what’s said,
May your sense of irony bring perspective.

As time remains free of all that it frames,
May your mind stay clear of all it names.

May your prayer of listening deepen enough
to hear in the depths the laughter of god.”
John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings

xx

Hill

 

An Instagram-filtered Lenten journey

This Lent, I had a number of challenges that I took up and gave up, ranging from food/social media fasting on Fridays, to setting aside self-deprecation and welcoming more self-love and self-care. Lent has become my favorite

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Savannah, Courtney and I on Easter Sunday at Lakeview Presbyterian Church

time during the liturgical calendar, because there is so much to be learned through the suffering and darkness seen and experienced as we follow Jesus’ journey to the cross. It is a time to repent from our old ways of thinking, and welcome in everything that is being made new in us. We are constantly being made new.

Below follows a serious of 42 photos Instagrammed during my #40PhotosOfLent challenge which offer a little insight into what I’ve learned and experienced through this year’s Lent. It was a beautifully challenging pilgrimage, but now He is risen and we rejoice in the lightness! Happy Easter! Matthew 28:6

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From glitter to dust, let the journey begin ✨ #MardiGras #aftermath #Lent #FatTuesday #AshWednesday #40PhotosOfLent #Day1

 

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I’m grateful for this man who supports me, loves me and encourages me every day. Thank you for being an amazing father! Happy birthday dad! 😊❤️ #40PhotosOfLent #Day2

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It’s #FastFriday! I don’t come from a Christian background that traditionally fasts, but I’ve always been interested in the Muslim observation of Ramadan and the Catholic observation of Ash Wednesday and (as we called them in high school) “fish Fridays” so I’ll be fasting every Friday during Lent from sunrise – sunset from food, drink and social media. Just praying my hanger doesn’t kick in at lunchtime 😏 #40PhotosOfLent #Day3 #proteinpacking

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It’s a constant struggle for me to whole-heartedly experience joy even when something exciting is on the horizon because I immediately worry about this that and the other thing. I’m a perfectionist who often has difficulty resting, taking time to be still in the moment, and allow the beauty and my present reality eminent joy from within me. This Lent I’m actively spending more time stepping back, and patiently watching life bloom around me. ☺️🌸  🌳 #40PhotosOfLent #Day4 #spring #NOLA #CityPark #RoadBackToYou

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One challenge I practice year-round is to consistently experience different cultures and people any chance I’m given, and today Cherokee and I ventured down to NOMA for India Fest. This Lent I’ve taken up daily mediation and a weekly yoga class, two practices originating from India, aimed to unite and bring awareness to the mind, soul and body. Although it’s not traditionally from a Christian context, certain practices like “centering prayer” and lectio divina offer a deeper meditation on scripture and how it’s speaking in the present moment (thanks Riley!) (I’ve also just really been missing the easiness of finding or making Indian food since moving back to the States, so this made my heart extremely happy 😍💜😋) #Namaste #40PhotosOfLent #Day5 #Bollywood #NOMA #CityPark

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This Lent, I’m making it a habit to practice my morning routine which allows me the time and space to process life day by day. I’ve started reading “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence – a book I heard referenced twice in one week: in a sermon from my home church, and a blog post written by my cousin. I usually take those little moments as ways in which God is speaking to me. One thing that’s been challenging this year is allowing the mundaneness of my work routine become something negative. I’m someone that thrives in an environment with lots of variety and activity, so it’s taken a few months for me to find peace in my work which is often unpredictable. But recently I’ve been able to find much more joy and look forward to every day. Reading about Brother Lawrence’s capability of finding God in every simple, little moment is one way that I’ve been able to gain a new perspective, understanding and thankfulness for the work God has set before me this YAV year, and the lessons I’ll take away when my time is done in NOLA 😊  #40PhotosOfLent #Day6 #yav1617 ☕️

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My dad surprised me with these “Leslie Tartan” hi-tops he designed for Valentine’s Day. He’s always been one of those people to appreciate the littlest things in life, and to share those joys with others – like a slice of pizza from Augustine’s, a good song, or fresh cut daffodils on the kitchen table as a reminder of Spring and the coming Easter. Today these shoes remind me how acts of kindness can change someone’s day, and how important it is to appreciate every little thing around me. There is joy to be found everywhere if you pay attention! ♥️ #40PhotosOfLent #Day7

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Happy international women’s day! 💁🏻💁🏽💁🏾💁 During women’s history month I get daily inspiration from this display at the library of all the kick-butt women that’ve changed the world. Call your mum, call your girlfriend, call your best friend or your grandma and let all the women in your life know what they mean to you! 💜 #TheFutureIsFemale #WhoRunTheWorld #InternationalWomensDay #40PhotosOfLent #Day8

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Thankful for reflection time on an evening run at the lake 🌙 “Lent is a good moment for a spiritual stocktaking; a pause, a retreat from life’s busy surface to its solemn deeps. There we can consider our possessions; and discriminate between the necessary stores which have been issued to us, and must be treasured and kept in good order, and the odds and ends which we have accumulated for ourselves…. There are few who cannot benefit by a bit-by-bit examination of that equipment, a humble return to first principles; for there we find the map and road-book of that spiritual world which is our true environment.” – Evelyn Underhill #40PhotosOfLent #Day9 #yavprogram

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Picked up the guitar for the first time in 4 months, and wondering why I ever put this away in the first place – trying to make this a habit and now’s as good of a time as ever 🤗♥️ Getting geared up for St. Paddy’s with a few of my favs from N. Ireland! ☘️#40PhotosOfLent #Day10

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As much as I wish I had the energy to go out to the St. Paddy’s parade in the Irish Channel, sometimes you gotta listen to your body and take the day off (don’t worry pal, I’ll celebrate ya on Friday, St. Patrick!) Lent allows the space to find where soul meets body, and when that body needs to recharge in order to understand the soul. Thankful for housemates that make the resting so enjoyable 😊  #40PhotosOfLent #Day11 #Clue

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My favorite part of church buildings has always been the stained glass artwork. I love how you can see the world through many different colored windows; it’s a growing edge, and a reminder for myself to stop being blinded to others’ experiences that differ from mine, in order to gain a better understanding of the beautiful variety of God’s creation in the world. Lent is a good time to turn away from my old way of thinking and seeing, and with new knowledge, turn toward creating a vibrant and colorful community rooted in love ♥️ #40PhotosOfLent #Day12

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I almost missed this beauty until Haley pointed it out because, as usual, I was scurrying around the house to make a cup of tea before accomplishing the next task on my to-do list. Remember to pause, be still, and watch the world in the midst of busyness. There is so much to be gained in the stillness. 😊  #40PhotosOfLent #Day13 #NOLAsunset #NOLA

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Thinking back to my time spent on Iona last year as I plan this week’s Lent study, and remembering a reflection I wrote about ‘thin moments’ – where heaven meets earth, and the sacred and secular are inextricably linked – as I’ve moved to NOLA. “In New Orleans, I’ve taken on the year in the hopes of further learning how simplicity relates to being one with the spirit of Christ in every context and surrounding. Part of the spiritual journey is to become so sensitized to the presence of the sacred, that we can appreciate it in the every day life. What I have discovered working for a nonprofit is that sacred spaces, or thin places, are outside of church walls, historical abbeys and comfort zones. At the library the patrons I work with daily as a YMCA Educational Services volunteer tell stories of tragedy, sorrow, and pain. But I catch a glimpse of the divine in the hope they have during their search for a new start, home, job and changed city. When we learn how to appreciate sensing the ultimate in the common and simple, we are encouraged and energized to love our communities with intentional and wholehearted grace, forgiveness and understanding.” During the journey of Lent, we focus on how to become fully present to God, just as God is fully present to us. Thin moments are everywhere, if we’re open to receiving them 😊  #40PhotosOfLent#Day14 #yavprogram #yav1617 #NOLA #Iona #Scotland

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I remember so clearly meeting you for the first time in London, jet-lagged and running on 0 hours of sleep, trying to figure out how to buy a U.K. phone from an Indian man in the corner shop. From our pre-orientation Facebook stalking, you thought I was a crazy sorority girl, and I thought you were way too cool for me because you were a dancer – little did I know we’d become best friends in our first few days together, and continue to have many more adventures and unforgettable memories together over the past 5 years 🤗 (Here’s our first photo together in front of Big Ben!) ♥️ Thank you for your faithfulness in our friendship, and your love for others and God. You’ve taught me so many important lessons about myself, and I don’t know where I’d be without you! I love you Tori! Have a wonderful 25th birthday!! 🎉🍻💜 (P.S. you’re still too cool for me) #40PhotosOfLent #Day15 #YOSO #DontYouWorryChild #DuskTuesdays #StirlingUni #Banter

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For community night, I lead us to the Emerald Isle, learning how Lent is ‘a sacred pilgrimage into the desert of our lives,’ as we journey with Christ. Through the history of St. Patrick and the teachings of Celtic spirituality, we learn how to experience a pilgrimage of the mind and spirit in partnership with our bodies; in this way the holy can be found in the midst of every day life. John O’Donohue’s “To Bless the Space Between Us” explains the importance of blessings in Celtic spirituality because of their power to change the atmosphere, illuminating a person or situation in a completely new way. As you pilgrimage through Lent, hold this blessing close (excerpt from the blessing)’For The Traveler’
When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.
A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

#40PhotosOfLent #Day16 #Celtic #Irish #NOLA

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Thankful for friends willing to go out for a pint of Guinness when I’m feeling a wee bit homesick for Belfast! #IrishChannel #IrishYouWereHere #NOLA #StPaddys2017 #40PhotosOfLent #Day17

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Nothing quite better than a Saturday in the park(s) walking for MS and crawfishing with friends topped off with Pandora’s snowballs and the new Beauty and The Beast! Today, I am so grateful for this community, and simple joys like sunshine, sugar and seafood. Remember to take heart in simplicity! 🤗🦐🍧♥️ #MSWalkNOLA #40PhotosOfLent #Day18 #NOLA #OrangeYouGladItsTheWeekend #yavprogram #yav1617

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As I’ve just started listening to @jfrazfrazer ‘s Bible In A Year podcast at the start of January, I’ve been curious to learn more about Genesis and the story of creation through the lens of art, science and faith. Recently I’ve been getting into The Liturgists Podcast and this morning I spent some time surrounded by creation on a run at the park contemplating science and religion and how they’re intertwined in our understanding of the world. It’s important and healthy to engage in dialogue about the ‘big questions’ surrounding our existence and purpose on earth, and seeing it from multiple perspectives! This morning I’m thankful for the divine mystery of creation and the way in which God speaks through nature and science. 😊🌳☀️🌷 #40PhotosOfLent #Day19 #TheLiturgists #Gungor #ScienceMike

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Happy first day of spring! 🌼It’s a new beginning, and another season to grow through encounters and experiences. I’m delighting in this Lenten season as I nervously, yet excitedly, prepare my mind, heart and body for my next journey as it becomes more and more visible on the horizon. “We are never as alone in our beginnings as it may seem at the time. . .there can be no growth if we do not remain open and vulnerable to what is new and different.” John O’Donohue offers this blessing ‘For A New Beginning’ //“Though your destination is not yet clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is at one with your life’s desires.” #40PhotosOfLent #Day20 #Blessing #JohnODonohue #ItsAllHappening

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Enjoying a wee cuppa in my new C.S. Lewis mug, and reminiscing on memories with faraway friends in faraway lands. 😊 💚 Today I’m thankful for joy that transcends miles. // “Friendship is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself. . .” #Belfast #SDBells #40PhotosOfLent#Day21 #CSLewis #JammieDodgers

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For the past 4 years I’ve given up solo Netflix-watching during Lent because it became an unhealthy crutch/addiction in the past when I sought various ways to numb my emotions. I realized I was bored tonight and the house was empty, so I picked up this F. Scott Fitzgerald book I’ve been trying to read for the past two months – needless to say, my avid reading can fall by the wayside, and considering I own 100+ unread books and work at the library, this healthy habit needs to be re-introduced! I’m thankful for words, and how much I learn about the world every time I read someone else’s story. This 75 degree southern spring evening isn’t that bad either 😊  #40PhotosOfLent #Day22 #NOLA

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Tonight for our March Lent study we watched the movie ‘Chocolat’ (which might I add is extremely difficult if chocolate is one of the items on your list of Lent challenges – potentially ironic and hypocritical considering a talk I did at Garnerville last year but I blame this one on Craig).. 🙄We discussed how Lent is about more than repentance, and not about practicing one’s piety before others in order to be seen by them – but remembering that we are a God-breathed dust, beloved in our humanness, and taught to both accept and extend unconditional love in our relationships with God and others in order to reconcile the world. “I want to talk about Christ’s humanity, I mean how he lived his life on earth: his kindness, his tolerance. We must measure our goodness, not by what we don’t do, what we deny ourselves, what we resist, or who we exclude. Instead, we should measure ourselves by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.” – Pere Henri in ‘Chocolat’ 🍫 #40PhotosOfLent #Day23 #yavprogram #yav1617

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It’s my 4th #FastFriday! One thing I love about my Friday schedule in New Orleans is getting to walk part of the way to work through the CBD with Riley and Camille, enjoying the city coming to life around me. I started spending my Friday afternoons cooking and baking to take my mind off of the fasting, and I’m grateful for this practice that’s getting me back into cooking! 🏙 🌞 #40PhotosOfLent #Day24 #NOLA

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Dusk blue Saturday views from bed ☀️ Grateful for the quiet, reflective stillness of a sunrise before another glorious day 🤗  // “The only thing I knew how to do Was to keep on keepin’ on Like a bird that flew Tangled up in blue” #BobDylan #40PhotosOfLent #day25

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This morning while running at the park I witnessed a girl successfully riding a bike for the first time. Her face was filled with so much joy when her dad ran to hug her that I couldn’t stop smiling myself. 🤗 Today I am so happy for childlike joy showing me how wonderful it is to be alive. And my nails happened to match my shirt so all in all it’s a fab day, so it is. 💅🏽🌳 #NOLA #40PhotosOfLent #Day26

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Water: as a middle class American I’m so accustomed to having access to this precious, vital gift of life every day, that I don’t even remember to say “thank you” for it. I was listening to another Liturgists podcast today about suffering, and how it’s crucial for us to listen to others’ experiences of suffering in order to understand compassion. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by all of the things I want to fix in the world that I forget to experience delight – like why is it so hard for us to provide a basic necessity like clean water for every human on earth to have life, but so easy for us to spend quadruple the amount of money on walls & nuclear weapons that lead to death? Our passion for justice can so easily get dark and heavy that it leads us to paralysis, and we numb ourselves to both the suffering and the joy. But ‘to be fully alive we must be people who engage with the suffering in a deep & intentional way as well as be people who take note of the joy & delight that exist in the world & each other.’ “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” #Matthew11. This Lent, be mindful of your blessings, be mindful of your privilege; allow yourself to engage in suffering, & delight in joy; challenge yourself to turn your passion into a tangible act of love. #40PhotosOfLent #Day27 ♥️🌎

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“Everything will be fulfilled” // I love to imagine that Rachael painted this beautiful image while reciting this beautiful poem por su hombre. . .🌅
•Ode to Hope•
Oceanic dawn
at the center
of my life,
waves like grapes,
the sky’s solitude,
you fill me
and flood
the complete sea,
the undiminished sky,
tempo
and space,
sea foam’s white
battalions,
the orange earth,
the sun’s
fiery waist
in agony,
so many
gifts and talents,
birds soaring into their dreams,
and the sea, the sea,
suspended
aroma,
chorus of rich, resonant salt,
and meanwhile,
we men,
touch the water,
struggling,
and hoping,
we touch the sea,
hoping.
And the waves tell the firm coast:
“Everything will be fulfilled.” #PabloNeruda #40PhotosOfLent#Day28 #hablaaltoart
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Sometimes a Wednesday night drinking a porter and playing trivia with no expectations is needed to refresh and relax the mind. Remember to give your beautiful brain a break! 💆🏻✨ #humpday #40PhotosOfLent #Day29

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After another #FastFriday I was overly joyed to channel my Frank Underwood (please note the sarcasm) and dig into some BBQ pulled pork. It’s so important to routinely get outside of your routine and try something different. This Lent, challenge yourself to experience something new, and bring some good friends with you 🤗  #TheJoint #NOLA #40PhotosOfLent #Day30

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Sunny, swampy, springy S-Town-listening Saturday 🌞🌳🌸 // “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars. . .” #NOLA #cityparknola #alliteration #40PhotosOfLent #Day31

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Very special moment this morning reminiscing on the past as it meets the present full circle; 10 years ago I went on a post-Katrina mission trip to New Orleans with SHYG @nw_presby staying in this church, and my life has never been the same since. I’m so grateful for that experience and those people showing me love, and shaping me into the person I am today 😊  #NWPC #SHYG #NOLA #FPCNO #yavprogram #yav1617 #40PhotosOfLent #Day32

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After a crazy and stormy 5 AM wake-up due to a tornado warning alert on my phone, and 12 hours later walking under completely blue, breathtaking skies, I’m amazed at how nature mirrors our lives. I’m reminded of one of its most important lessons: no matter how damaging, storms don’t last forever; a vibrant wellspring of peace awaits us on the other side. New beginnings are only a day away. 🌞🌈 #40PhotosOfLent #Day33 #NOLA

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You know you gotta see it when it has a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes – well done Jordan Peele! The satirical thriller is an introspective social critique that acknowledges “all self-proclaimed progressive people like to think we’re comfortable talking about racial divisions in America, [when] we’re really not.” – #Times. It’ll leave you wanting to talk about it with your coworkers/roommates tomorrow #staywoke #40PhotosOfLent #Day34 #GetOut

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“Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances” #MayaAngelou #TheSingingTree #40PhotosOfLent #Day35

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A year ago today I was lucky enough to be the girl sitting next to this guy at Kirstin & David’s wedding. He didn’t ask me about Donald Trump, but instead asked me to dance the first ceilidh, and the rest is history! Thank you Craig, for taking a chance on us and going the distance from the very start. Living 4,000 miles apart hasn’t been easy, but our relationship has grown stronger because of the challenges. Thank you for indulging in my love for letter-writing and late night FaceTime dinner dates; all of these memories and moments spent together has been a gift, and makes me even more grateful that we’ll finally be living in the same country in few short months! 🤗♥️ #40PhotosOfLent #Day36

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French Quarter Fest with my favorite music man! 🎷🥁🎺⚜️ #NOLA #FrenchQuarterFest #40PhotosOfLent #Day37 #LeslieClanInNOLA

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Thankful for a weekend of fun memories exploring my current home with Dad and Carolyn! ⚜️  #NOLA #FrenchQuarterFest #LeslieClanInNOLA #40PhotosOfLent #day38

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This week’s YAV read is “The Practice of Living with Purpose” chapter from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “An Alter in the World.” As we enter Holy Week and continue our pilgrimage with Jesus, it’s an uplifting reminder that no matter what our jobs in the world happen to be, as said by Martin Luther, our mutual vocation is to love God and neighbor – no matter what we are doing, and where we are on our journey. It can be easy for us to fall into a ghostliness, where we walk through the motions of a job without putting any purpose or meaning into the task at hand because we are so busy trying to suss out God’s purpose for our lives, and don’t believe this present calling is ‘part of the divine plan.’ But we are here and now, and sometimes we have to look low as well as high for purpose in our present situations. “[Whatever feeds your sense of purpose], perhaps you will hold open the possibility that doing it is one way to learn what it means to become more fully human, as you press beyond being good to being good for something, in a world with the perfect job for someone like you.” #40PhotosOfLent #Day39 #yavprogram #yav1617

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I’m awe of creation tonight and these ‘crazy skies all wild above me now’ 😊⛵️🌊 #DavidGray #40PhotosOfLent #Day40

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I’ll never forget how transformative the foot washing ceremony during my first SHYG mission trip to New Orleans was in understanding God. I’d never felt such an outpouring of love and humility exemplified through this simple act echoing Jesus’ servitude on the night of the Last Supper. As cheesy or crazy as it sounds, I was in awe that my feet had never felt cleaner in my life, even after using the same bowl of water for 60 people. Tonight as I lay in bed reflecting on Good Friday and Jesus’ journey to the cross, I’m grateful for His tears, His humanity, His sacrifice and His example of love and light through the suffering and darkness. Sunday is coming.  John 13: 7 “Jesus replied: ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ” #FastFriday #40PhotosOfLent #Day41 #yavprogram #yav1617

I’ll leave you with a song that brought me joy as I prepared to go to church this morning. May this Easter bring you peace, love and new life 🙂

xoxox

Hill

Mardi Gras: the journey through glitter to dust

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset“It has been said that a Scotsman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.” — Mark Twain

Mardi Gras has come and gone, leaving little traces as reminders of the celebration. Walking around during March in the YAV house in New Orleans, you’d see beads strewn across tables, chairs and desks; upon leaving the house, you were bound to find glitter hiding somewhere on your body. (There also may or may not have been a stale king cake sitting on the counter for a few extra weeks. . .)

IMG_2748Leading up to Ash Wednesday in New Orleans was unlike any other experience I’ve had.  Mardi Gras, the long and joyous celebration between Epiphany and Lent, defines joyful excess; it was like a massive, month-long bloc party tradition of old friends and family reuniting to indulge in a marathon of long nights, loud music, belly laughter, king cakes, street dancing and strategizing to catch coveted throws (beads and various trinkets tossed by Krewe members riding on a float in a parade). In “1 Dead in Attic,” Chris Rose explains it well for those holding onto common misconceptions about the holiday:

“Mardi Gras is not a parade. Mardi Gras is not girls flashing on French Quarter balconies. Mardi Gras is not an alcoholic binge.

Mardi Gras is bars and restaurants changing out all the CD’s in their jukeboxes to Professor Longhair and the Neville Brothers, and it is annual front-porch crawfish boils hours before the parades so your stomach and attitude reach a state of grace. .

Mardi Gras is the love of life. It is the harmonic convergence of our food, our music, our creativity, our eccentricity, our neighborhoods, and our joy of living. All at once.”

Even after Hurricane Katrina, a large number of those who had been displaced from the storm came back for Mardi Gras because it’s just that important to the soul and life of this city.  Mardi Gras was, and is, a sign of hope in New Orleans. It’s a glittering glimpse of the diverse and vibrant colorfulness that brings joy to a broken and suffering world; a vision of just how sweet everything can be.

Leading up to Mardi Gras, the NOLA YAVs read Michele Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:” a detailed account about the African American male experience in the criminal justice system that’s developed out our colorblind nation following the Civil Rights movement and the declaration of the War on Drugs.

It was a challenging, eye-opening and difficult read. Most of the material was hard to swallow and I felt a lot of anger toward society, and disappointment in myself.  I was unaware of how drastically the prison industry has grown in the past 30 years; the extremes to which men of color are targeted and locked-up for minor felonies is shocking. The aftermath is even more upsetting when you see how they’ve been systematically exiled from society – not just behind bars, but even as ‘free’ men after release from prison. I’ve worked with a few patrons who have a criminal record, and even after months of job applications and interviews, they’re unable to secure work.  Reading Alexander’s book, watching the documentary ’13th,’ and listening to the This American Life podcast ‘Cops See It Differently’ has been crucial for me this YAV year as I work alongside many individuals who face numerous forms of systematic exile – not just the criminal justice system. As a white middle class American, I needed to be made aware of my privilege, my colorblindness, and my natural tendency to only see one side of the story.

Bringing it full circle, it was an interesting contrast to enter into the season of Mardi Gras with a magnifying glass hovering over race relations in the US.  While Mardi Gras’s hopeful and colorful display of joy is a unifying statement of culture and values celebrating the diversity of the community and the belonging of each individual, like all good things, it isn’t perfect.

I was more aware of race and class divisions while watching some of the parades, and felt myself in an uncomfortable place because it seemed as though, from my perspective, the joy that is Mardi Gras maybe wasn’t completely accessible to every member of the community (i.e. watching predominantly white male Krewes who pay money to be riding in floats carelessly tossing beads, contrasted with predominantly African IMG_2827American male ‘flambeaux’ carriers – some of who are students at the downtown library – dangerously twirling around fire lanterns for a little extra cash). A fellow McCormick classmate and Belfast YAV (’14-’15) Will Massey pointed out that in New Orleans and elsewhere (like Belfast), community celebrations have an unfortunate habit of replicating day-to-day injustices because they fall short of completely transcending racism, classism or sectarianism that trouble society every other day of the year. But the hope is that celebrations like Mardi Gras have “the potential to carve out a sacred space where the joy lifts us out of the profane realm and helps us imagine a community that is free from racial/economic/sectarian division,” and embraces the differences in cultures and traditions. This is where hope is found.

Needless to say, I was emotionally and physically exhausted by the time Ash Wednesday rolled around, and it’s taken me some time to process this blog post! I was very thankful to be engaging and resting in the spiritual journey of Lent this past March.

Transitioning out of Mardi Gras, we cleaned up the glitter and returned to the dust (but how cool would it be to use the leftover glitter as ashes in New Orleans?!) Ash Wednesday was, and is, an invitation to rethink our true identity, recalling and reaffirming our creatureliness as we prepare(d) for the Lenten journey. “To recall our creatureliness is to affirm the command of responsibility, the prohibition at the boundaries, and the permit of generosity that envelops all of our life. All of this goes with being God’s breathed on dust. . .we are invited in the gesture of ashes to remember.”  – Walter Brueggemann. It’s a call to journey with Jesus through the suffering, the deserts of our lives, being made new in our humanness as we turn away from our old ways of being, thinking and acting. In terms of Mardi Gras and New Orleans, a call to repent colorblindness, and embrace colorfulness. “You make beautiful things out of the dust. . .you make beautiful things out of us.”

This journey of Lent has been extremely fruitful, and I look forward to sharing reflections with you next week!

xoxo Hill

P.S. Highlights from my first Mardi Gras:

Commuity day parades in Uptown: Krewe of Pontchartrain, Krewe of Choctaw, and Krewe of Freret, followed by the Marigny: Krewe of Chewbacchus on Feb 18 (yes, it was Star Wars themed!!) It was a sunny day in NOLA, and we made the most of it with dinner at Dat Dog, and the Frenchmen Art Market.  I learned how to successfully make eye contact with a masker (float rider) in order to get some beads, and continued to use that technique to collect as many as possible. Now, what I could do with the beads is anyone’s guess. . .

I was very impressed by the “ladder seat” contraptions a lot of the kids’ parents had built for them to sit on during the parades (and was slightly jealous that I didn’t have one of my own). They were lining St. Charles Avenue where kids tossed around footballs, and old college friends cranked the stereo, divvying out food and drink.

There was nothing more adrenaline-producing than the hope of a Nyx purse or a Muses’ shoe! I’m happy to say with hard work and determination I managed to get one of each, and all of my YMCA coworkers spent our Friday morning telling our shoe stories with each other.

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Orpheus was by far my favorite parade for a few reasons: Harry Connick Jr. co-founded the Krewe (he was also in the parade); the floats were absolutely breathtaking, intricately designed floral and forest patterns; the marching band music was the best out of what I’ve seen; it was more relaxing because I wasn’t trying to catch a particular throw; the Krewe members were the friendliest, and the most diverse (both race and gender).

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One of my favorite parts of the celebration was having an excuse to get dressed up in our “Mardi Gras Uniforms” for Endymion day, wearing wigs and glitter, and experiencing the unique celebration with my lovely housemates for an entire month (even on weeknights!)

It’s a certain thing I’ll be back for Mardi Gras one of these days. . . 🙂

“A New Orleans credo: When life gives you lemons, make daiquiris.” – Chris Rose

divine dissatisfaction & hopeful introspection

 

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J20 protest at City Hall

“The world says, try to avoid anything that brings pain or, God forbid, might even make us weep, but Jesus says if we never weep, how will we learn what it is to be comforted? If we never mourn, how will we recognize the blessing of joy? . . .Life is not difficult now so that we will more greatly appreciate being rewarded someday in heaven. Life is difficult now simply because it is difficult now.  And the reward is to see it, to feel it, to let it in.  When we refuse to accept that life is not to be continually altered, continually tweaked for our pleasure, we miss a simple truth: Life is what it is, and what it is is Life.  A mixed muddle of sorrow and peace and joy and poverty and longing. . .we are not in control of life, the difficulties, or the blessings. But we can learn to expect them and to receive them as guests, as guides, as friends who come to show us the blessing path.” – Kayla McClurg

 

Living in New Orleans, it’s easy to experience and witness moments of joy and sadness every day. It’s the dichotomy that makes this city what it is – the pushing and pulling of the tide, constantly drifting between celebration and mourning. It’s the soul, the underbelly, the ever-present electric current shocking us with its changing attitude. It’s a jazz song, changing rhythms and harmonies every second. The city does whatever it pleases, and it takes us along for the messy and beautiful ride.

img_1714I feel it now more than ever – not just in my personal and spiritual life, but in the grand scheme of things: in this city, in this country, in this world; I feel anger and frustration. I want to be angry at God for what’s happening in the world, – to yell at Him and question Him and punch Him in the stomach and make Him explain it: “why have you forsaken [me/us/them]?”  It’s hard not to lose faith when it seems as though everything you believe in has gotten lost in the depths of unanticipated, mysterious pot holes riddling side streets in Gentilly and Mid-City (watch out for those, y’all). The world is crying out with divine dissatisfaction, echoing Martin Luther King’s words in 1967.


I see a dark place of hopelessness img_1823being illuminated by God’s presence in the actions, words and deeds of those who speak on behalf of humanity, justice,
love and peace. If we never weep for the injustices experienced by race, gender and religious minorities, immigrants, the poor, the trafficked, the abused, the refused and the neglected, how will we learn what it means to love others as we love ourselves? The suffering is our greatest teacher – either personally experienced, or as seen through the eyes of others with less privilege and freedom, stripped away from them by systematic exile.

NOLA YAVs at the YAV board Christmas party! & the 12th night Joan of Arc parade to kick off carnival season!

Life is a circle (you know, King Cake is so relevant to this post. . .) Like the liturgical calendar in the Presbyterian Church, we experience the ebb and flow of life and death throughout the seasons. We are always searching, preparing and waiting for something, someone.  During the season of advent we prepare for the birth of Jesus. And this year it was a beautiful time to be still, and rest in the midst of the current chaos surrounding us, knowing that the teacher of peace and love would soon be with us.  From Louisiana up to Pennsylvania, signs of light in the darkness were found in the form of Christmas decorations, a stranger’s homemade pie, a kiss on the cheek, the singing of a candlelit ‘Silent Night,’ the passing by of a “Refugees Welcome Here” sign outside of a church, and reunions with loved ones. 

Craig and I on NYE; the house’s first King Cake!!!

Headed back to New Orleans for New Year’s I was greeted with angry rain, bitter cold and post-Christmas season sadness, but the singing of Auld Lang Syne with the embrace of dear friends reminded me that life is good in spite of, in the midst of and in the moment of all the darkness.  Epiphany appeared out of the darkness with the arrival of King Cakes on every supermarket shelf (and our coffee table), celebrating the joy of the newborn Jesus, the brightest light illuminating our blessing path. As Mardi Gras quickly approaches during this season of carnival in New Orleans, we will dance and sing and laugh in the light and goodness. We are invited into the house of joy when we pay attention to all of the outpourings of love that are often overshadowed by negativity in the news and media. Allow the suffering you feel or witness guide you to hope, comfort and joy.

Over the month of February, I aim to focus in on these little moments of humanity that give me hope in the midst of a suffering world:

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NOLA Women’s March with Camille and Riley

  1. The pictures of women and men from all over the world (and every continent) standing in solidarity for the Women’s March – and the feeling of empowerment felt by being part of a movement I’m passionate about.
  2. Visiting the Whitney Plantation with the YAVs – the only plantation in Louisiana that commemorates the slave experience, and is educating people from around the world about the honest history of the south in the USA
  3. The biggest smile on a patron’s face when he successfully submitted a job application after weeks of trial and error on the computer.
  4. The Pope’s words of wisdom in times of despair and frustration.
  5. The sound of a marching band outside of the library practicing their routine for Mardi Gras.
  6. The positive motivation of a student aiming to test for her HiSET at the end of this year.
  7. Patrick’s mom sending the house some of our favorite comforting snack foods.
  8. An unexpected and uplifting conversation with a new co-worker at the library about race relations.
  9. A random act of kindness like the offer of buying a friend lunch, or a ‘good morning’ note.
  10. A dad at the park teaching his sons how to play soccer.
  11. A book that makes me examine my privilege and perspective in the USA.
  12. The sweet, seductive sound of afternoon jazz music celebrating the arrival of 2017.
  13. Celebrating life and happiness on Courtney’s 23rd!!

If you missed my detailed December update about Christmas break in Pennsylvania and NOLA, check out the link here: December Newsletter

Keep an eye out for an upcoming post talking more about Jim Crow (who dat?), criminal justice and job applications in NOLA YAV life.

With love and many blessings,

Hillary xoxoxo

As referenced earlier, the MLKJ ‘Divine Dissatisfaction’ quote.

Divine Dissatisfaction
Let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction.
Let us be dissatisfied
until America will no longer have
a high blood pressure of creeds
and an anemia of deeds.
Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls
that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort
and the inner city of poverty and despair
shall be crushed by the battering rams
of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied
until those that live on the outskirts of hope
are brought into the metropolis of daily security.
Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast
into the junk heaps of history,
and every family is living
in a decent sanitary home.
Let us be dissatisfied
until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools
will be transformed into bright tomorrows
of quality, integrated education.
Let us be dissatisfied until integration
is not seen as a problem
but as an opportunity to participate
in the beauty of diversity.
Let us be dissatisfied until men and women,
however black they may be, will be judged
on the basis of the content of their character
and not on the basis of the color of their skin.
Let us be dissatisfied.

Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol
houses a governor who will do justly, who will love
mercy and who will walk humbly with his God.
Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall,
justice will roll down like waters and righteousness
like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied
until that day when the lion and the lamb
shall lie down together, and every man
will sit under his own vine and fig tree
and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied.

Let us be dissatisfied until that day
when nobody will shout White Power!
—when nobody will shout Black Power!—
but everybody will talk about
God’s power and human power.

The road ahead will not always be smooth.
There will be still rocky places of frustration
and meandering points of bewilderment.
There will be inevitable setbacks here and there.
There will be those moments
when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed
into the fatigue of despair. Our dreams
will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted.
The road ahead will not always be smooth.
There will be still rocky places of frustration
and meandering points of bewilderment.
There will be inevitable setbacks here and there.
There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope
will be transformed into the fatigue of despair.
Our dreams will sometimes be shattered
and our ethereal hopes blasted.

Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on
in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.

-Martin Luther King Jr.
Source: Southern Christian Leadership Conference address 16 Aug 1967

 

A moment of imperfect gratitude

 

Mmmm, Thanksgiving. I remember waking up at home when I was in elementary school early enough to hear The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade playing in the background of the kitchen, as my mom quickly and precisely rolled out the pecan pie crust, and popped her homemade rolls in the oven. Derek and I would gather around the electric heater in the TV room and hope that the Backstreet Boys would make a special appearance after the Charlie Brown balloons.

wal-mart-samThanksgiving is a Sabbath. Americans don’t take many breaks, but on Thanksgiving we do. (Let’s try to forget for a moment that Black Friday is trying to steal away the sacredness of the holiday).  Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday to celebrate abroad, because it was a time for me, as an American, to explain why the holiday is so desperately needed in the USA. We don’t often take the time to rest and be grateful for what we have. We overachieve and overcompensate and complain about trivial things. But on Thanksgiving, we say grace, and give thanks. We spend time with family we haven’t seen for months, and let ourselves live a little – by watching too many parade performances and football games, eating too much food, playing too many board games and napping in between the chaos of the cooking. On Thanksgiving we rest. We set aside work duties, and we tune in with our relationships. For those of us that are fortunate enough, we eat pecan pie to remind us that it’s good to be alive.

Over the weekend the New Orleans YAVs had a community day where we learned about and listened to The Liturgists’ Enneagram podcast – I was skeptical at first – but it most importantly advised us to not see the Enneagram as 9 fixed numbers.  My overall personality type explains why I was frustrated with having to choose one category: I wanted the perfect match and definition which would perfectly explain me.

We learned that the Enneagram is made up of a spectrum of colors with each number (personality type) being a different color; there are an infinite number of hues existing on the spectrum, which makes every 9 or 1 or 7 uniquely different from the other. This put my perfectionist (#1) mind at ease. It made something so seemingly structured, patterned and formulated, become abstract, unique and beautiful. Perfection exists in the infinities. The YAV house has it’s own Enneagram painting waiting to be created. . .

During the month of November, Courtney has been leading our house in the spiritual practice of “Gratitude.” We’ve been challenging ourselves to look through the lens of gratitude to be thankful for all things, even the mistakes, tears and struggles that are hard to find thanks and grace for at the present moment. This spiritual practice (using the lens of gratitude) allows us to be thankful for what we see as imperfections – fitting for an Enneagram #1. Through this, we remind ourselves that true perfection already exists in every moment, because God is everywhere, and in everything.

This blog post is about being vulnerable and honest in my Thanksgiving. If you know me at all, you know I usually take an evening or two to get my writing/blogging ‘just-so,’ but I’m challenging myself to stop overanalyzing and criticizing. During this month of gratitude, I seek to turn away from my own thoughts and toward the way in which God is moving through every person and situation around me. Give thanks for everything, for God has said “it is good.”

True perfection already exists in every moment.

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This month I give thanks for:

  1. Any chance I have to be outdoors in creation, going for a run or walk.
  2. A house that I look forward to coming home to every day, with housemates that love, support, challenge and encourage one another.
  3. For the patrons I spend time with at the library, and the rare moments when they come back just to say hello or update me on their job search.
  4. The opportunity to tell other young adults about the YAV program, and the ways in which it can change their lives.
  5. The reminder that each sunset and each sunrise is the beginning of a new day, and a second chance.
  6. Learning how to forgive.
  7. Physical sickness, because it forces me to take a day of mental and emotional rest.
  8. Mistakes.
  9. A steady job, even though I dislike sitting at a desk all day.
  10. The janitors and security guards at the library that help me feel like a part of their family.
  11. Being a girl boss, even though it means I work mostly alone.
  12. Moments of loneliness and darkness, helping me understand a bit better those who experience loneliness and darkness daily.
  13. When we run out of food in the house, because it lets me be creative with my cooking.
  14. Words of wisdom from unexpected sources.
  15. Long distance relationships, because they require hard work and time commitments.
  16. Missing Thanksgiving at home – but getting to make pecan pie, taking a road trip, and creating new holiday memories.
  17. Gilmore Girls release (!!) as a wonderful excuse to spend time as a YAV family. #TeamJess
  18. Remembering how fortunate I am to have a car, even though I dislike driving to work.
  19. Katrina stories and other life stories from my patrons, because they are a reality check to my white middle class privilege.
  20. Being overwhelmed by the future, because it means I have access to many possible paths.
  21. Feeling scared or nervous, because it means I am experiencing something new, or care deeply about something.
  22. For knowing when I’m emotionally unhealthy, because it means I’m aware and can make changes.
  23. Tears, because it shows I’m finally processing a transition, and that I’m opening myself up to others.
  24. Laughter, because it gives people life and happiness.
  25. Spontaneity, because it helps me be unstructured.
  26. Music, because it speaks to all languages.
  27. For the election results, because it’s making passive minds proactive.

I’ll leave you with a quote that rings true.

When we observe Sabbath, we allow revelation to happen, and we see through the lenses of gratitude. Anne Lamott puts it so well here in her book about prayer Help. Thanks. Wow.:

“. . .in our quieter moments we remember that (a) there are no codes, and (b) if you are paying attention, plenty is being revealed.  We are too often distracted by the need to burnish our surfaces, to look good so that other people won’t know what screwed up messes we are. . .but if you gently help yourself back to the present moment, you see how life keeps stumbling along and how you may actually find your way through another ordinary or impossible day. Details are being revealed, and they will take you out of yourself, which is heaven, and you will have a story to tell, which is salvation that again and again saves us, the way Jesus saves some people. . .So I say ‘Thanks’. . .without revelation and framing, life can seem like an endless desert of danger with scratchy sand in your shoes, and yet if we remember or are reminded to pay attention, we find so many sources of hidden water, so many bits and chips and washes of color, in a weed or the gravel or a sunrise.” (p. 52-53)

May you be thankful for all things, and renew your mind and spirit.

Happy turkey day!

xxxx Hill

 

Walking in darkness

img_9875Under a clear New Mexico evening sky, only the Milky Way and crescent moon lit the path before us.  As Luke and Emma took their first steps, we reluctantly turned off our flashlights and entered the labyrinth. . .

Isaiah 45:7-8: “I create the light and make the darkness. I send good times and bad times. I, the LORD, am the one who does these things. ‘Open up, O heavens, and pour out your righteousness. Let the earth open wide so salvation and righteousness can sprout up together. I, the LORD, created them.’ “

At the end of September, the 2015-16 YAV class spent a weekend at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.  Breathtaking scenery and fellowship was the perfect setting for reflection and relaxation.  The transition retreat was a time for YAVs to reunite and connect, and to understand the grieving process that one goes through when moving on from something as pivotal as a volunteer year. They weren’t kidding when they said it would be “a year of service for a lifetime of change.”

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Camille, Riley & Micah at the AVODAH Sukkot (YES! coworkers); YAVocate training at Ghost Ranch

After training at the New Orleans Public Library Main branch, I moved to the East New Orleans location at the start of October to begin my position as the Community Education Instructor.  The first two weeks I found myself in darkness.  It was one of those moments where I felt at a loss for how to make my situation better.  I felt abandoned without key access to the building, unwanted because the library staff didn’t know me, unhelpful because no patrons came to see me, and incredibly alone without any other YES! staff.  I wasn’t expecting to feel so empty and helpless. I was loathing in self-pity and frustration that I could be better, and that I wasn’t doing or being enough.

Layne and I met for lunch halfway through those first two weeks, and she told me it was okay to be experiencing those feelings, but challenged me to learn something from that period of darkness. She wasn’t telling me to be positive about the experience, but to look deeper, beyond the surface level emotions.  From there I could find ways in which my situation – my story – relates to the citizens of New Orleans, and those patrons I’ll be building relationships over the next 9 months.

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Milky Way evening at Ghost Ranch

As I initially began to dig deeper into those emotions, I was transported back to the labyrinth at Ghost Ranch where I willing walked through the darkness.  I found at the start I was following in Luke and Emma’s footsteps, but eventually I reached a point where I could no longer see where they went. I had to rely on my senses, trusting and confident that my feet would find their way to the center of the maze as long as they focused on the task at hand, unafraid of making mistakes. I went into the situation believing I would come out of it having learned something along the way, expected or unexpected – even if it was just how to keep my feet firmly on the ground, or to have patience when something is difficult. I trusted in the darkness.

When I started in the East, I wasn’t expecting to experience darkness because I was anticipating it to be perfect. I was expecting there to be no hiccups – for patrons to be lining-up outside of my door, adding up the intake of those I’d assisted to reflect how well I was doing as a volunteer.  I was hoping to justify my work, my energy and my time spent in the office, and as a YAV, this year in New Orleans. To say “look Mom, I did something good,” or “Hey God, look at what a good and faithful servant I am.”

But that isn’t the point of this year. I’m not here to check things off of my “Do-Good” list.  I’m learning how much I need to constantly check my selfishness and privilege. I’m here to learn from the stories of others who constantly experience darkness – to find comfort sitting in the darkness, searching for God and the thin places that exist there.

I am here to learn how to have confidence in my faith, not confidence in my own power and ability.  To learn patience and grace when I find myself in a pit that I can’t quite climb out of just yet.

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At the start of my third week I had one patron who I’ll call Gus. Gus came in to work on a resume and a few cover letters and I was over the moon ecstatic.  Gus started talking about his experiences living in New Orleans, and how frustrated he is that East New Orleans has fallen by the wayside, and still has yet to fully recover from Hurricane Katrina. He went on about how thankful he is for the opportunities he was given in life, surviving Katrina and surviving stage 9 cancer. He asked how my first few weeks had been and I truthfully told him they were slow, but I was positive that things would turn around once relationships began to form in the library. He left me with these words, “Each new day is already a reason to be thankful. Every day is a chance to start over. Clean slate. You have the chance to be a better person than you were yesterday, and an opportunity to try to make this world a better place in whatever way you can.”

I was thankful for his kindness, for his encouragement and his story.  To know that every day is an opportunity to learn something new, no matter if you are stuck in the darkness or resting in the light. God created both lightness and darkness, and without both, we would never find direction.

I already know this city is going to give me so much more than I could ever give to it, and I only hope I can use those lessons to be a small catalyst for others.

xxx Hill

“He had to go to the desert to find out who he was, and who he wasn’t.”

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Afternoon at Autobahn park; the porch: favorite part of the YAV house

57 varieties

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“To be engaged in some small way in the revival of one of the great cities of the world is to live a meaningful existence by default.” – Chris Rose

57: Baseball, baps, beignets: Pittsburgh, Belfast, New Orleans. 57: a seemingly random number connecting three places in a variety of ways.

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Haley, Patrick & I at Cafe du Monde for some beignets!

In Pittsburgh it’s a sin to purchase anything other than Heinz ketchup, crucial to enjoying a Primanti Bros. sandwich at a Pirates game, if only you know to ‘tap the 57’

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An unknown sign of what was to come: an Irish King Cake to celebrate Mardi Gras while in Belfast!

on the bottle. In Belfast and New Orleans it’s a shared bus route number to separate YAV placements: one taking me past bap bakeries decorated with paramilitary murals, and the other past beignet bakeries adorned with Mardi Gras remnants. A parallel triangle if such a thing could ever exist.

 

Changes of people, place, and purpose always mean the following feelings will appear in an irregular order and at inappropriate times: sadness, excitement, anxiety, fear, anticipation, freedom, confusion, clarity, nostalgia, unconscious comparison, and an extreme stimulation of the senses. It’s about 57 varieties of feelings.

Even though I’ve been experiencing these feelings that define the beginning of a YAV year, I’ve stopped comparing and started noticing the world’s connectivity.

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New Orleans is for Poe girls and Poe boys

One of my roommates, and coworkers, Riley, always uses the word “synchronicity” when referring to those seconds of time when you feel an uncanny, meaningful coincidence in connection with a person, place, or thing. In the past year I’ve been paying closer attention to how God is speaking through those signs and symbols. Almost a year ago to date I witnessed this in Belfast:  In Retrospect – it’s never been more apparent to me that there is an underlying thread that binds people and places together between seemingly different universes, the signs shouting, “You are here. You belong here. Recognize it, and go with it. God is with you.”

I’ve began to find joy in those little moments of synchronicity weaving together my YAV years:

 

  1. Bus drivers being “that’s so New Orleans” and me thinking “that’s so Belfast!”
  2. The green paint on the YAV house remniscent of the green hills in Northern Ireland
  3. Southern New Orleans hospitality echoing the feeling of instant friendship with N. Irish natives
  4. Living in East Belfast and working at the New Orleans East Public Library
  5. My favorite Irish blessing ending a church service in a New Orleans Presbyterian church
  6. A city obsessed with their football team, and another city obsessed with their American football team
  7. The New Orleans drawl and the Belfast accent, almost a whole new languages of their own
  8. Cherokee being spot on when saying “everyone here is like a different version of all of my church members in Virginia”
  9. The French Quarter and the Cathedral Quarter
  10. Two cities that fostered and influenced some of our greatest artists, in word and song: C.S. Lewis, Van Morrison, Louis Armstrong, Tennessee Williams
  11. King Cake and mince pies: once a year, always the talk of the town

When change has the power to be ugly, this is where the beauty can be found and embraced.

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The new housemates (Courtney, Haley, Cherokee, Riley, Savannah & Patrick) in Denham Springs, LA doing flood relief work

My journey to New Orleans hasn’t happened by chance. My relationship with faith began in New Orleans 9 years ago on a mission trip to rebuild after hurricane Katrina, and yesterday I spent the day doing flood relief work in Southern Louisiana with my current New Orleans housemates. It felt like exactly where I’m supposed to be.

A meaningful coincidence.

As I continue to settle in to my surroundings, get to know my housemates, and finish up job training with YMCA Educational Services, I’m learning to have patience. The first few weeks are going to be tiring and overwhelming, but beauty is found in building relationships and connections with a city continuing to revive itself. I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve already had in a short three weeks and can’t wait to share more stories about YAV year round 2 with you!

With love,

Hill xxxx

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The Desk Diaries: NOLA (revisited & revamped)

One of my best friends, ex-college roommates, and blog writer, Rachael, once said that a person’s desk should reflect who they are when they aren’t there – and that the correlation between the desk and person’s personalities can often be suspected, but sometimes appear incognito. That being said, I decided to revisit this catalogue of “Psych”/Nancy Drew investigative notes from the Indie Attic’s blog and bring back The Desk Diaries.

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After a long solo road trip (aka my Jack Kerouac moment), yesterday I moved into my new home for the next 11 months with the YAV program in New Orleans, LA.  As the last to move into the house, I was pleasantly surprised to find this desk uninhabited and decided to claim it as my own for three reasons: It’s green, it’s old, and it has space for the crate of books I brought with me.

  1. Forest green and battered wooden desk, lime green lamp, & mint green walls: If you haven’t noticed, green is one of my two favorite colors (hint: my laptop and picture frame are sporting my other favorite). I also like old things, or as the hipsters used to say: vintage.
  2. Bruised banana: evidence of a 16-hour road trip and motel continental breakfasts.
  3. Memorabilia from Belfast: I love Belfast, so I do! In addition to providing evidence of my very real addiction to coffee (thanks Belfast), having these memories from my first year of YAV will give me energy and strength, and remind me why I decided to do the program again. It’s also making me miss my pal Emma, and days spent at Garnerville and The Vine. (miss you too, Mark & Leif!)
  4. A ceramic bowl full of fun things for creating and processing.
  5. Little black journal, little gold box and little blue cards : for writing, reading, connecting, and disconnecting. For thank-yous, I love yous, and I miss yous.
  6. Vivitar 35EE camera, circa 1970s: a memory of seeing Gordon at every ‘Coffee with Joan’ morning, and a TBD retro way to snap some pictures (still don’t know if it works) – which if you follow my Instagram, I definitely do an unhealthy amount of it.
  7. Southern reads: Evidence of reasons and moments that would eventually lead me here. This New Orleans picture book was given to me by my Dad before my first mission trip in 2007, and 9 years later holds more significance than I ever thought possible.
  8. My trusty 2010 Macbook Pro: Slower than molasses but still going strong. Decorated by quotes and stickers that weave together the fabric that makes up my life in all of its randomness (Dr. Swerdlow would be so disappointed in my use of clichés).

Starting up this second YAV year I’m filled with all of the feelings I anticipated before moving. Transitions have never been the easiest for me, but I keep pursuing this life that calls me to relocate and readjust myself. Keep on keeping on.

I knew I’d be missing Belfast and have trouble with comparing New Orleans to it, excited but anxious about meeting new housemates and starting a new job, checking over my shoulder 18,000 times in the shower to make sure I’m not sharing the space with a cockroach, and unable to stop wondering how, and through what people or experiences, this year will shape my life.

I’m reminded that whether I’m in New Wilmington, Belfast, or New Orleans, God is right there waiting to be pursued, and His love is waiting to be taken and shared.  I’m here to lose what I think I know about this city and its these people. . .to learn how society is hurting them, to witness how God is loving them, and to try and understand the dichotomy between the joy and sorrow that make up the city of New Orleans.

I look forward to using this desk to dissect and process my YAV year in all of its beautiful YAV messiness: from questioning God in unpublishable blog posts to receiving letters from loved ones far away, unexpected thoughts will be unraveled and learned. Let’s do this, y’all.

 

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The aforementioned archived Desk Diaries:

The Desk Diaries: College Edition

The Desk Diaries Vol. 3 (Hillary)

The Desk Diaries Vol. 2 (Justine)

The Desk Diaries Vol. 1 (Rachael)

The Desk Diaries: Scotland Edition

For a little taste of my themed road trip music:

Trampled by Turtles “New Orleans”

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With love from the Big Easy,

Hill xoxoxo

living simply, loving intentionally

 

Iona beach at twilight

“Liminality / a thin place: a hallowed space and time when heaven and earth for a moment are one.”

While thinking of a blog to post this past week, I was feeling anxious about having four weeks left in my YAV year.  Often we can get so caught up in worrying about something coming to an end, that we aren’t able to rejoice in the goodness of the current experience. We get burnt out and don’t allow time or space to recharge (which is problematic when your job description is to serve, love and be present with others to the best of your ability). I wish I could say I wasn’t a worrier, but alas, I must constantly remind myself to breathe. Breathe in the goodness of God. This swell of anxiety brought me back to the peacefulness of presence I experienced in Iona; I was reminded how simplicity is key.

In May, the Belfast and Glasgow YAVs (along with the Church of
DSC_0706Scotland VVs and Belfast VBS-ers) ventured to Scotland for our third and final retreat.  Doug emphasized how the journey to get to the isle of Iona was a pilgrimage in and of itself, but the reward found on the island would be worth the long plane, train, bus and ferry rides.

I always say every long journey needs a good book, so I packed one written by the husband (Scott Dannemiller) of a past YAV married couple who served in Guatemala.  Emma had ordered the book, “A Year Without A Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting,” after our last YAV retreat to get a bit of a feel for how the YAV program’s emphasis on simple living could carry-over to our post-YAV years.  The couple decided to, as the title suggests, spend a year without making any purchases, with “usable items” (like hygiene products, food, etc.), “experience gifts” and fixing broken items (if a replacement isn’t available), falling into the category of allowed purchases, or viable exceptions to the challenge.

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Iona Abbey at dusk

The Dannemillers were entering their own year-long, intentional journey to face the challenge of living with less in an over-abundant, material-focused world. Harder than it sounds, the book pinpoints the difficulties the Dannemillers faced during the challenge, but also the surprises and joys they discovered along the way. One part that really stuck out to me was Scott detailing a conversation he had with a taxi driver, Alex, who came to the U.S. after fleeing Somalia during a civil war. Alex said it was faith that kept him going – faith that was made real by the church bringing him and his family to safety in the United States. Scott is struck by this encounter, and calls it “one of those brief moments where the space between heaven and earth narrows and we catch a glimpse of the divine in another human being.”

Liminality. Thin places. Heaven meeting earth.

Iona abbey worship

Iona abbey worship

In Celtic spirituality, a ‘thin place’ can be described as “areas in nature where the boundaries between the spirit world and the physical world are less delineated and more permeable.” Iona has been called a ‘thin place,’ as the air is heavy with sacredness, and borders seemingly dissolve and diminish on the horizon at twilight.  Our pilgrimage around the island brought this imagery into focus.  The energy and life given in a place such as Iona isn’t meant to permanently draw us from reality, but rather re-charge and energize us to return at the end of our journey having found the holy: grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection. . . for ourselves and our communities.

From a reading on our pilgrimage: Murphy Davis, a founding member of the Open Door Community in Atlanta, once said here on Iona “Our hearts are set on pilgrim roads not to satisfy ourselves with finding one holy place but to take the experience of the presence of the Holy back into the thick of things.”

Reading Dannemiller’s book on the retreat brought the idea of living simply to reality.

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“The well of eternal youth” at the top of Dun I with Julie

It’s not just the “stuff” in our lives that physically weigh us down, but more importantly the emotional weight that comes from being human. The anxiety. The stress. The selfish desires. The unhealthy comparisons. The fear of failure. The passive attitudes. The unconscious decisions. Scott discovered that the physical things, the ones which we hide behind and decorate ourselves with, mask the real issues we struggle with, and distract us from what’s important in life: an abundance of gratitude, love, and hope strengthened by faith. These things and thoughts diminish our ability to love ourselves as God intends, and to take that love and share it with others.

To learn how to live simply, is to learn how to love intentionally.  And when we learn how to live with less baggage, emotional and physical, we are able to open ourselves to other people without fear. Without stress. Without anxiety. We can meet people where they are with love, grace, and understanding. We can look for the divine, where heaven meets earth in humanity.

Another reading from the Iona pilgrimage: “. . .Setting out is not covering miles of land or sea, or travelling faster than the speed of sound.  It is first and foremost opening ourselves to other people, trying to get to know them, going out to meet them.” – Dom Helder Camara

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Belfast YAVs with Doug!

Coming to Iona, different to the last two retreats, was a journey meant to take off the weight of worry and anxiety about our world and its people.  It echoed Dannemiller’s journey to live a simpler life. To take away the shiny distractions and let faith be the center stage.  To be encouraged and energized with the ability to love intentionally and wholeheartedly. To make heaven meet earth in our own communities, our own relationships, our own cities.

These next four weeks I’m challenging myself to focus on the ministry of presence, relishing in the relationships I’ve made here in Belfast, with co-workers, church members, fellow YAVs and friends of friends. I hope to find joy and peace in the goodness I’ve discovered in Belfast, and encourage others with my love for them and this city.

Iona is a reminder that Heaven is already here on earth if we’re willing to seek it.

xoxox

Hillary

For those interested in checking out the book by Scott Dannemiller, here’s a link to Amazon! A Year Without A Purchase

the priority of addressing poverty

DSC_0615“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” 

― Mother Teresa

Ever since our latest YAV retreat in Scotland this past February, I’ve been mulling over the definition of poverty, and the way in which its addressed in our communities.  While the history of sectarian issues in Belfast account for a lot of the division felt between communities, we can’t dismiss how poverty plays just as big of a role, if not bigger. One of the Glasgow volunteers, Iona, talked about her experiences witnessing the “poverty of childhood” as she’s grown up in Scotland and started working with the church. . .which  left me wondering: is poverty just monetary, or is there much more to the 7-letter word?

This morning the 4 Belfast volunteers met with Diane Holt, the Thrive Ireland and Tear Fund Ireland project coordinator to learn a bit more what poverty looks like in Northern Ireland.

Just some of the statistics we covered looked a bit like this: 

-In the five years between 2006/7 and 2011/12, the poverty rate among adults aged 16 to 29 rose by 8 percentage points to reach 26%. 

-Northern Ireland’s working class male life expectancy is 17 years less than that of a male from a middle class background.

Looking at these statistics, it’s easy to see how a community can be so divided based on class principles. Addressing poverty encompasses so much more than evaluating an individual’s income; it’s also about increasing quality of life (education, health, every day resources), empowering marginalized voices, addressing conflict, and creating connections that provide individuals and families with a loving community.

IMG_6846So how does the church respond to these class divisions? Diane found that her time working with The Link in Newtonards saw middle class Catholic families and middle class Protestant families having little issue creating relationships, but it was harder for middle class Protestants to connect with working class Protestants. Maybe class is the bigger issue here.

While churches are quick to put together a relief fund for third world countries, raise money for members in the congregation, or seek to create connections with neighboring Christians, they quite often look past those issues of poverty that exist in their own communities, right on their door steps.  I was reminded of conversations we’d had in Glasgow about the priority areas, and the lack of outreach to those overlooked individuals and families.  How often are children robbed of an adolescence, or told they aren’t worthy of anything? How often do we claim those on welfare are just lazy individuals? How often do we convince ourselves others are dealing with alcoholism and addiction by choice and an unwillingness to change?

I’m learning that as a church, we need to re-evaluate the way in which we look at “mission,” “outreach,” and “community.” As Diane mentioned, too often our churches fall into the “Believe, Behave, Belong” structure, wanting only to build on the numbers of Christians in the church instead of loving and meeting those living in our communities where they are, providing for their needs first and foremost.  FullSizeRenderHow many times have we seen a new person walk into a church and either A) Don’t take the time to introduce ourself, B) Are more concerned if they are a Christian instead of getting to know them first, or C) Think they wouldn’t ‘fit-in’ with the congregation? This structure is damaging to the church, and more damaging to those with whom we are trying to build relationships.

Instead we first need to make people know they Belong, and then the Belief and Behavior may follow.  We need to make addressing poverty a priority. We need to stop boxing-in God. We need to stop claiming ownership over the church, and acknowledge that God’s house is for anyone and everyone, no matter where they are in their relationship with Jesus (or lack-there-of). We need to “use our loaves” and show more love. As a volunteer, I need to remember how important the relationships are that I’m creating with people every day. It all starts with an introduction.

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

This was a bit more of a relfective blog post, so if you’d like an update of the past month, check out my newlsetter here! : Belfast YAV Update #8

xx Hill