Waiting for Lucia: What a Puppy Taught Me About Waiting

I knew her name before I had ever met her. Luci, short for Lucia, which means light.

Lucia couch

Lucia, at 7 months, sitting on couch

My fiancé, who then was living in New York City, had been discussing getting another dog, just for him. I had taken trips to the local humane society to look at puppies several times, even once taking my older dog, Neptune, to see how he would respond to a puppy.

Sometimes only adult dogs, mostly pit bulls, were available. But in the spring, puppies were plentiful. One local shelter allowed you to view and reserve potential pets online, and when you got to the shelter, you had first dibs on that particular animal. One day, I reserved a truly cute roly-poly dog, female, some type of mix, I don’t remember of what.

Neptune and I drove over on a sunny Saturday to check her out. The dog had a soft, fuzzy gray and brown down coat; was beautiful, healthy, playful, everything a puppy should be, but there was something missing. We had no connection. Even Neptune was indifferent to her. A little girl and her father were second in line to visit the puppy, and I told them she was all theirs.

Then there was the pure white pit bull female, Blanca, that I met while sitting on a coffeehouse patio having lunch with a friend. Two workers from the local animal shelter were having lunch there also, Blanca in tow. Blanca came over and nuzzled me for a few minutes. Her little wide face with a mottled pink nose was so innocent and open that I put aside my fear of pit bulls. I vacillated a few days about putting in an application for Blanca. By the time I made up my mind, and drove to the shelter on my lunch break, someone else had adopted her.

Four years ago, my neighbors had a litter of puppies, border collie – Australian shepherd mixes. There were five puppies that they left in a pen on their lawn. Every morning on my way to work, I would drive past the pen of puppies, seeing them grow a little more each day.

My heart began to yearn for a puppy in the house.

I finally decided to stop and inquire. Four of the puppies were spoken for, one was a maybe. If the tentative owner pulled out, she would be mine. The puppies were beautiful dogs, with the traditional black and white markings and pointed nose of a border collie.

I would sit on my porch and pray about the puppy. That’s when the name came to me, dropped into my head with clarity, seemingly from nowhere. Lucy. Hmmm. Lucy? I didn’t really care for the name; being of a certain age, all I could think of was the 1950s comedy, “I love Lucy.” Then the name expanded on its own: Lucia. I looked up the word and saw that it meant light. Perfect, I thought. I prayed for the puppy, writing my pleas in my yellow journal. “Lord, if Lucia is mine, please let the other potential owner pull out.”

Yet when I checked back at the agreed upon time, the dog had been adopted. I put dreams of a new puppy on the shelf. My fiancé, Morgan, had since relocated upstate. Ours was a late-in-life connection. We were both 51 with three marriages between us when we, through a string of improbable events, met at an Assembly of God church in Granville, Washington County, New York. Both Brooklynites, we had coincidentally, both lived on Clinton Avenue in Fort Greene.

He and Neptune had become very attached, after an awkward and tentative beginning. Neptune recognized Morgan as his Alpha dog, and was sometimes more attentive and affectionate to him than to me. So a dog was no longer such a priority.

The years flew by. Once in a while, when Neptune proved stubborn and obstinate, Morgan would say he wanted his own dog, to train up from a puppy.

My Facebook friend Brenda’s dog had a litter of puppies two years ago: Border-collie – Aussie mixes. There were five, and they were quickly spoken for. I didn’t really covet any of them; although they were awfully cute. Finances were tight; there were a million other priorities before a new dog.

Two more years passed. Brenda thought Maggie, her border collie, was pregnant again. Then she confirmed: Maggie was carrying seven puppies. It was January, a little bit early for what I thought of as puppy season; but I began to feel a tugging in my heart. I told Brenda I’d be interested in a girl, but made no commitment.

When the puppies were six weeks old, I drove out “just to look.” Two of the puppies were already spoken for. Five were available.

Brenda and her husband lived in a log cabin on a winding dirt road. Inside, was a great pen right in the middle of the living room, with seven squirming, tumbling, round, puppies with various markings in black and white.

I sat on the floor overwhelmed by choice, as I am when I walk into a grocery store and am unsure of what brand paper towels to buy.

One puppy nuzzled close and ran off. Closing my eyes I did what I am accustomed to doing when I am unsure of something. “God, bring me the puppy I am supposed to have.” No sooner had the prayer been lifted, than a puppy with a funny-looking serious face, all black, save a dash of white on her chest and rear paws, climbed into my lap. For the rest of my visit, the funny-looking puppy clung to me.

“I guess I’ll take this one, since we’ve been hanging out together,” I said.

Four years after my desires had not been met for the first border-collie – Aussie puppy, I finally had met Lucia.

Morgan was settled in. He was soon to start a new more lucrative job (although we weren’t aware of that yet). Rough edges had been polished off our relationship. Finances were more plentiful. It was time.

With the excitement of first love, I began preparing for our new puppy. Soft new American Kennel-brand fleece bed. Toys from Petsmart. Smart new faux suede carrier. It was literally “puppy love.”

As I sat reading my journal recently, I re-read my prayers for a puppy named Lucia. I didn’t know then that there would be a four-year wait. It reminded me that in life, we don’t always get what we want … at least not immediately. In the Book of Galations in the New Testament, one of the fruits of the Spirit is patience. Sometimes God wants us to wait; for his own reasons.

But like fine wine, spring, and late-in-life love, some things come not a moment too soon or a minute too late. They come right on time.

This Time, It’s Personal: Reflections on the Charleston Shootings

Black&White CharlestonIn the last several weeks, we have seen two extremes unfolding in the saga of race relations in America.  On the one hand, was the amusing, but at the same time sad and puzzling story of Rachel Dolezal, who, apparently empathized with African Americans so much, that she slowly began to take on the identity of a black woman. However, her story was forced off the front pages by yet another signal event in this country’s bedeviled relationship with race.

This time, the script was more familiar. A young disenfranchised white male who apparently had been spending his time prowling the Internet’s racist sites and imbibing raw, unfiltered racism, decided that it was his duty to incite a racial war. Forget the fact that in the more than four centuries since the introduction of African slaves, there has never been a war between the black and white races on our shores. A large part of that has been because of the resilience and the faith of African Americans.

The church has long been considered the most important institution in the black community. Writing for The Root, Peniel E. Joseph, founder of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts University, said:

“The black church’s radical humanism harbored a fierce resistance to slavery, a love of freedom, and a thirst for citizenship and equality that made it a hotbed of internal debates, discussions and controversies over the best course for black liberation in America… After slavery, the strength of the black church made it a target of racist vigilantes, with white supremacists turning a religious symbol, the cross, into a burning icon of racial terror.”

The African Methodist Episcopal Church is the country’s oldest black Protestant denomination and remains one of its most prominent. An outgrowth of a civic group called the Free African Society, Methodist evangelist Richard Allen founded the first AME church in 1794. When his segregated congregation in Philadelphia went as far as pulling black parishioners from their knees when praying, Allen knew it was time to establish safe, secure places where people of African descent could freely worship.

AME churches thrived in the Northeast and Midwest, but also eventually stretched below the Mason Dixon line. At one time, the dream was to remove African Americans from the US and to take them to established black homelands in Liberia and Haiti, but those plans eventually were foiled. (The denomination does now have branches in Liberia, Sierre Leone, and South Africa.)

My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all grew up in the pews of the AME church. I come from a long line of AME ministers, and although my parents were non-observant, the imprint of my father’s AME past was passed on to him and his three siblings. Raised in a strict home as PKs, pastor’s kids, they were expected to achieve and serve. I see the influence of their AME upbringing in their striving for excellence, concern for social justice, and passion for education.

I saw glimpses of that ambition and commitment to service in the victim’s obituaries as well: distinguished graduates of historically black colleges, active in community organizations, faithful ministers of Emanuel AME Church.

I recall hearing stories from my relatives about NAACP meetings held in the church basement and the traveling civil rights leaders who visited. My grandfather, a presiding elder overseeing AME churches in Baltimore, ended his career at Washington DC’s Turner AME Church. Decades later, the congregation still remembers his legacy with a bio on their website:

“The Reverend Clarence Clyde Ferguson … was a spiritual and dynamic leader with foresight, wisdom and great pastoral ability. Under his leadership, Turner continued to grow and to develop rapidly. A parsonage, located at 509 P Street, N. W. was purchased. The church grew from a mission to a station charge. Reverend Ferguson served until his death in 1946.”

I think about how the late pastor of Mother Emanuel, Clementa Pinckney, will be remembered. Sadly, he too served until his death—at just 41.

But after months and years of declaring #BlackLivesMatter, why has this event been the one to stir more white Americans as well as blacks and their progressive allies?

Understandably, the Charleston shooting hits especially close to home, symbolically and emotionally, for African Americans like me.

Many African Americans, even those raised in the North, have ties to South Carolina. More than half of black Americans have ancestors who came as slaves through the state’s coastal ports including Charleston, according to historians.

Within my family, there are black Fergusons in South Carolina to this day. (Our branch migrated to North Carolina; my father was born in Wilmington. I grew up in New York, where my parents, Southern transplants, met and married.)

Even more significant, though, is Mother Emanuel itself. A historic black church, it represents both a force against American slavery and oppression and a beacon signifying the rights of African Americans to worship freely.

When I heard that Pinckney and the others were killed in their church basement, I immediately flashed back to my own memories of Wednesday night Bible studies, of being excited to welcome any new face who came.The young white man who visited Emanuel AME apparently considered it his duty to incite a racial war. We know, however, that our battle ultimately is spiritual, not physical. We know that the enemy comes to rob, kill, and destroy, but that Jesus came to bring life and life to the full.

I watched grieving in both black and white communities on CNN in the aftermath. Commentators marveled at the joy in the worship service, attended by both South Carolina’s black and white communities. I saw the mutual comforting and the tears. I heard the church bells that rolled across the historic city of Charleston in mourning for nine lives lost.

It brought to mind this Scripture: “Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:17, 21)

This time, the killing of black Americans going about their daily business, I suspect, became personal for white believers. Instead of a thug, they saw a pastor; instead of unfamiliar, possibly suspect blacks, they saw brothers and sisters in the Lord gathering for Bible study.

I pray they can remember how that feels—to assume the “other” to be one of them—next time an injustice occurs. That instinct can be a first step to bridging a divide, to loving their neighbor, to begin healing racial wounds.

My prayer is that brothers and sisters in Christ, be they white, black, brown, or any other color, would put down our differences at the foot of the cross. For as South Carolinians of every stripe demonstrated in the last several days, and as we sing in our churches: “He is our peace; He has broken down every wall.”

(A version of this article originally appeared in the Her.menuetics blog on Christianity Today)

Do Our Souls Have Gender? Musings on Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner

caitlyn-jenner-i-am-cate-01-770x513My hairdresser and I were discussing the respective men in our lives. We talked about communication styles and the methods we use to diffuse arguments when the men start getting hot under the collar. And how they can spend long phone conversations talking to loved ones, but neglect to find out the important things: is a sick relative feeling better, or a friend’s marriage on the mend? They don’t know the answers, because they were talking about cars.

We agreed that, even women who are childless usually are naturally nurturing: to nieces and nephews, to the children they teach in Sunday school, to people who are weaker (nursing used to be a traditionally female career), to pets and others. How being a female is about more than high heels and makeup; even though all those things may be fun. Yet many young moms barely have time to apply lipstick regularly and most women, after 40, struggle with 5- or 6- inch heels, learning to prefer comfort over style.

These musings were brought about by the recent media hoopla about the Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner’s stunning transformation, after three marriages and five children, to “Caitlyn,” a surgically enhanced, satin corset-wearing 65-year-old bombshell.

As the laudatory celebrity tweets rolled in; and dissenting voices were silenced, I don’t think I was alone in being disturbed by this news. Reading comments in center-left newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, revealed that commentators, who are able to post anonymously, were, by a margin of about 3 to 1, critical of Bruce’s “new look.”

Jenner has claimed that he has always had a female soul. But can a human soul be misplaced? Can God, our Creator, accidently plant a female soul in a male body? Is there even such a thing as a “male” or “female” soul? We know the male and female psyches differ. Despite early feminist efforts to say there were no differences, or that those differences don’t matter, most people by common observation (which is backed by science) can see that generally speaking men and women have definite differences in behavior and the way we interact with the world. On a light note, we women sometimes wonder why our mates can be glued to ESPN or Monday night football or never tire of watching the Fast and Furious franchise over and over, when a good rom-com or drama would be so much more interesting. Or why my brother-in-law and nephew’s conversations on Facebook revolve around the cars and trucks my nephew seems to trade as if they were baseball cards.

On a more serious note, we wonder, why, when we ask our partners about a dear friend’s well-being when they get off the phone or home from a visit, they may reply, “We didn’t go into all that.” Whereas when two women get together, even in a new friendship, by the time an hour is over, we know the basic contours of one another’s lives.

We, as Christians, can definitely feel isolated in from our culture’s views of human sexuality, marriage, and gender identification. Sometimes we learn to keep our views to ourselves for fear of offending others, or just because we don’t want to argue or seem intolerant. But when I heard about Jenner, all I could think of was how sad he must be. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, he has lived a life of wealth, notoriety and material blessings; with all the houses, cars and toys many Americans only can enjoy vicariously. Yet, there apparently was still a void in his life that riches and fame could not fill.

As the Bible succinctly notes at the end of Judges: “Israel had no king so everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Our times are similar. Many Americans have not submitted to the King of kings and Lord of lords, so all we can muster is doing what seems right for us: reveling in “our own truth.”

I like the opening line from a favorite poem, “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon. She begins the poem with, “I stood with two strong legs.”

Didn’t we all? We “woke up” and were here. We did not choose our parents. We did not choose where to be born. We did not choose our race or ethnicity or the socio-economic group we were born into. And we did not choose whether we were male or female.

But God works through our particular circumstances: we can feel secure in the fact that he has appointed the time and the place where we are born; it was not a cosmic accident. And if we draw near to him, he will surely show us how our individual circumstances can be used for his purpose and for the purposes he has chosen for us to serve.

But we are mysteries to ourselves. Psalm 64:6-7 notes:

“The inner man and the heart are mysterious; but God will shoot them with arrows; suddenly they will be struck down.”

Jeremiah further says. “The heart is deceitful beyond all things; who can understand it?”

It is only through our relationship with God, and our daily communion with him, that we will ever understand our true natures and selves.

In the discussion of Jenner, a prestigious hospital that pioneered so-called sex re-assignment surgery, no longer performs these operations, after findings showed that many people were just as troubled after as they were before surgery. After a decade, the suicide rate for transgendered surgically altered people was 20 times higher than for those who did not have the surgery.

As Christians, we should have empathy for Jenner; although I don’t believe we can applaud his choice. Better, as the former head of psychiatry for Johns Hopkins said, is to steer these people into therapy, where they can explore why they don’t feel comfortable in their skin.

Every one of us has “issues,” areas that we struggle with daily; sins that we mightily strive to overcome. Failings and shortcomings and even physical and mental illnesses that we, however difficult it is, must deal with and run to God with every day.

It wasn’t for nothing that Jesus commanded his followers to “Take up your cross daily.” Because it was on one particular cross of suffering that death was overcome and new life given to all who come. Our crosses are often the very things God uses to purify us and make us suitable instruments for, and eventual inhabitants of, his Kingdom.

This story originally appeared in Christian Post


The Ray Rice Redemption

Ray Rice jpgOkay, now that every media outlet, blogger and commentator has piled on to Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back, can we all take a deep, deep breath for a minute and consider some other sides of this troubling case?

The facts as we know them are this: After a night of heavy drinking, star-running-back Rice got into a verbal and physical altercation with his then-fiancé, now wife, Janay Palmer Rice. He sat down with his bosses and powers-that-be at the NFL and told his side of the story. The NFL likely knew exactly what happened; either through direct viewing of the whole videotape or by extrapolating from the portion that was initially released showing Rice dragging the unconscious Janay from an elevator. Rice and his team and the NFL came to an agreement about the punishment and consequences. Rice would be suspended for two games and he and Janay were to go through some kind of anger-management/marital counseling. Some were dismayed that he had only merited a two-game suspension, but things had moved on.

Next thing we know, a fuller version of the elevator surveillance video is disseminated by the gossip site TMZ, and all @#!% breaks out.

Yes, it was disturbing to watch a young, muscular man essentially knock out a much smaller, weaker woman with one punch. But really, what was in that full-length tape that we did not already know?

And now, once again, a young black man has been held up as the poster boy for some form of societal dysfunction. His name is even used as the hook for the website of the national Domestic Violence Hotline in a headline, which asks, “Have you been affected by the recent news concerning Ray Rice and the NFL?”

It recently came to light that Rice has attributed his (and Janay’s) bad behavior to a night of heavy drinking, and has said that they have since renounced hard liquor and have turned back to their faith. Their church, and no doubt many other people, are standing by, praying for them and counseling them.

The problem I have with the whole scenario is this: One’s word is one’s bond. If Rice, the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens had come to an agreement as to his punishment, and Rice was compliant, it is very “unsportsmanlike” for the league and owners to renege on the understood agreement. It’s as if someone served their jail time based on eye-witness testimony, and only later, after a videotape is discovered with visual evidence of the same crime, the person is sent back to jail to serve even more time.

The result of the latest iterations in the case, in addition to shaming the Rice family and, as Janay wrote, making their lives a nightmare, is that the interruption of his livelihood will no doubt have a very ill effect on the family’s future. Whether one is making millions in the NFL or doing the 9 – 5 grind, we all depend on, and value, our livelihoods. They not only allow us to pay our bills, but many times our work is tied up in of our self-respect and self-definition. Losing our livelihood can create almost unbearable stress.

However, the most important part of this story, to me, is the strident moralizing in the face of a contrite perpetrator, whose victim has apparently forgiven him.

Since Rice has apologized to all concerned, taken his punishment, renounced the things that contributed to his and his wife’s behavior (alcohol) and returned and recommitted to his church, why must we, as a society, be less forgiving than God Himself?

Don’t get me wrong. Violence against women or any other person is completely unacceptable. It is a serious national problem, affecting 1.6 million women annually and costing the nation $5.8 billion in aftercare, including more than $4 billion in medical costs. I am fully in support of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and have worn purple to signify it.

However, Christians believe that God will receive us upon repentance (turning away from) our sin “as if it never happened.” Our culture celebrates and condones all types of behavior once frowned upon (MTV Music Awards, anyone?) but becomes strangely moralizing when addressing a select subset of sins.

When someone repents of their behavior and pledges to improve, and is forgiven by those whom he has hurt, why can’t we extend grace to that person?

Had Ray Rice violated his agreement and been violent to his wife or someone else again, then sure, bring it on. Fire him from his team; suspend him permanently from the NFL, whatever.

But it serves neither his family, his team, his fans nor anybody else, when he is punished again for a crime he had already been punished for and expressed regret for.

Can’t we allow Ray Rice to be a poster boy for redemption instead?

This article was originally published in Onfaith. http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/09/18/ray-rice-domestic-violence-rage-nfl-redemption/34147

How to Love a Dying Friend

HowtoLoveI met my friend – I will call her Gigi because she reminded me of a ‘60s actress – a little more than a year before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer. I actually do not remember how we met; just that it was through a mutual friend, Lydia. My first memory of Gigi is New Year’s Eve, 2010, when she, Lydia and I went out to a buffet at a semi-nice restaurant in town. We had no reservations for dinner, so we perched at the bar to eat.

Over the next months, though, Gigi and I became fast friends. She was one of those people I just quickly bonded to. Was it her love of the arts? Check. Her sardonic wit? Check. The way she could make thrift store finds look like a million dollars? Absolutely.

She was medium height, with wide-set blue eyes. She had a nose that I call pert, small and well formed with a slight upward tilt – the type of nose that people go under the knife for. Her hair was once blonde, but now was streaked with gray, and she wore it short, with bangs that skimmed her brows, and she was slender.

Gigi was always up to doing something. A play. A concert. A Greek festival. An art opening. A movie.

Lydia and I fell into a routine of meeting Gigi at her home Sunday afternoons after church. At first, we would go out: to a rustic restaurant in nearby Vermont, or a lakeside eatery where we would dine under a big canopied tent, and lie on wood lawn chairs, dipping our toes in the cold waters of the lake.

Gigi was always keenly interested in what was going on in Lydia’s and my life. She never allowed the presumed shortness of her own life stop her from “rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)

In July 2011, we planned a trip to a Vermont playhouse to see “Ain’t Misbehaving.” We sat knee to knee during the production, and when I glanced at her, she was clapping her hands and laughing like an excited child. That’s another thing I liked about her: the ability to live life in the present moment.

After, she had to use the restroom to clean her colposcopy bag. When she was diagnosed with cancer after many months of health complaints that were not taken seriously by her health providers, she had had to have several feet of intestines removed.

Yet, I never heard Gigi complain about wearing the bag, or for that matter, about having cancer.

Some people find it awkward to be around the dying. Words fail. You avoid talking about the future, thinking it will hurt them since they won’t be there. You feel uneasy around their suffering. And, yes, the dying sometimes make us uncomfortable because we are forced to contemplate our own mortality.

Lydia and I didn’t have that problem, largely because of Gigi’s great attitude. The three of us single women were always out and about – we called ourselves “the three Musketeers,” although my fiancé preferred to call us – in our mid-50s to 60s – the Golden Girls.

It helped that we all were Christians. Gigi was a Catholic who had had intense experiences with the Holy Spirit. She bought a white wedding gown to be buried in. She wore a silver ring with a cross on her left hand. She spoke longingly of heaven, and credited (or blamed) her Welsh blood for a lingering sense of melancholy that always seemed to hang over her like a veil.

Gigi had come into salvation as a young mother in a troubled marriage. One night, her heavy-drinking husband had disappeared, and she found herself at her wits end, prostrate on the floor, beseeching a deity she only knew at a distance. As she related later, she had a vision of Jesus standing before her, his arms open wide, and he spoke words of comfort to her. She and the husband later divorced, and she remarried and divorced again.

When I met Gigi, she seemed worn out and buffeted by life, although still only in middle age. Two bad marriages, the stresses of parenting a hard-rocking son, and some emotional issues had taken their toll. Many dreams, especially those of serving her Lord, seemed to have come to dust. She had taken chaplaincy courses, but that career never materialized. She had even dreamed of joining a convent.

She was a smart woman with a master’s degree, but before her diagnosis, she worked as a health aide in a nursing home “wiping people’s behinds,” as she wryly put it. The one job she had achieved commensurate with her skills – providing services to recent immigrants – had been short-lived due to a misunderstanding with a client.

The winter before she died, we went shopping for vacation clothes, as she would be spending several weeks in Florida with a cousin she had reconnected with. In the dressing room, watching her try on dresses with flouncy skirts, Lydia and I didn’t want to believe that Gigi didn’t have long to live.

“Nobody who’s that near death has that much interest in shopping!” Lydia had snorted, and I had agreed.

However, there was a turn for the worse when she returned from Florida. Lydia and I still went to Gigi’s, but we would sit around the kitchen and talk instead of going out. Sometimes we would get the “anointing oil,” a bottle of olive oil from the kitchen and pray. I remember that after an especially powerful time of prayer, Gigi called to thank me, saying that she felt, for a moment, the closeness that she had once felt with God. Since she was often wracked with severe anxiety besides the ever-present pain, it was hard for her to feel the presence of God, she’d said.

Two weeks before she died, fluid had surged in her lungs and she feared suffocation. She was rushed to the hospital. My fiancé Morgan and I visited her the next day.

By the time we arrived, she’d had several liters of liquid removed from her lungs. She was looking as pretty and pert as ever, in a satiny blue nightshirt. She told us, matter-of-factly, that the doctors had told her they could do nothing more to make her comfortable. She made Morgan promise that he would befriend her son.

I got the final call in the airport, at a stop between New York and Louisiana. I wept at the airport café table. As I stood in line to board the plane, the agent at the gate asked me what was wrong, and hearing my answer, she gave me a badge to board the plane with the people with special needs. I still remember the older man and his wife waiting there who comforted me.

What did I learn from Gigi? To never be afraid to love a dying friend.

The Bible says no matter how long, our very lives are like a vapor (James 4:14), or like the grass that is fresh and green in the morning, and ready to be thrown into the fire by evening (Mathew 6:30).

A dying friend needs the same thing that she needed when healthy; and that we all need: love, companionship and an ease in being with her. She needs you to listen when she’s anxious, and to laugh with her when she’s happy. She needs to be able to talk about what will happen when she’s no longer here, no matter how awkward or painful that may be to you. She needs you to be her friend in the same way you would were she well.

Gigi left two checks with her mother after her death – one for me and one for Lydia. I smiled when I cashed mine – for $150. I made an appointment to do my hair, bought some bright orange hoop earrings and a flat of flowers, and Lydia and I went out to an Irish restaurant on Gigi’s birthday and raised our glasses to our friend.

Befriending Gigi, and spending time with her during the last days of her life, was a priceless gift. As my friend Debby noted, it is a privilege to walk with someone up to the gates of eternity.




A Broken Hearted Black Woman Speaks Out

Brother's keeperPresident Barack Obama recently announced a major initiative aimed at helping and healing young black men. The biblically named “My Brother’s Keeper” enlists private sector donations toward programs for black men to meet more success and less negativity in American culture.

In our country, black men have historically faced more struggles than black women, who outstrip black males in earning college degrees and finding a spot in the middle class. The reasons for this are many and varied, but include the remnants of racism, a lack of hope in the American dream; anger at being viewed as suspect and frequently inferior by the larger culture; a public education system based on wealth of the surrounding community that doesn’t adequately prepare students academically; and self-inflicted wounds reflecting a fractured self-worth that often embraces a street culture of machismo, violence, and absentee fatherhood.

This street culture has infected the view some have of African American men, despite the successes of prominent black men such as Kenneth Chenault, longtime CEO of American Express, and President Obama himself. Many expected Obama’s outreach to this population to come sooner.

As My Brother’s Keeper was announced last week, the headlines also remembered the fates of young black men who died too soon. Obama’s press conference came a day after the second anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death and just weeks after the close of the trial of the man who killed another 17-year-old Florida boy, Jordan Davis. The jury could not come to an agreement that Davis’ killer, Michael Dunn, was guilty of murder or even manslaughter after he gunned down the victim in a convenience store after an altercation over loud music.

Some media commentators placed the blame on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to shoot first if they feel their lives are threatened. Though this defense was not explicitly used in the Michael Dunn trial, the jury was asked to consider it. The perpetrators of these types of killings aren’t always nonblacks: Another recent case in Florida involved a black male in his 30s who pursued and ended up shooting a teenage black male whom he suspected of burglary.

These events are, in part, the modern-day results of the fractured history in the U.S. of valuing black life. In 1787, blacks were deemed three-fifths of a person according to the law, and as slaves, had no rights that the white man needed to respect. Slaves could be flayed, raped, bought and sold, and killed at whim. In the 20th century, more than 3,500 black males were lynched by whites in acts of vigilante “justice” for things ranging from looking at a white woman to being disrespectful to a white man. In the intervening decades, black men have felt disrespected, feared and discriminated against, despite Civil Rights laws enacted in the 1960s. In New York City last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s candidacy took off in the black and brown communities after his Afro-wearing son filmed a commercial promising that his father would change the city’s Stop and Frisk policy, which disproportionately targeted black and Hispanic males.

Every black mother lives in fear of deadly trouble befalling her young sons, whether she lives in the New York City governor’s mansion or the Brooklyn projects. The other day on Facebook, I saw my brother-in-law counsel his 24-year-old son, who had overheard a white man reviling blacks and Mexicans in a bar, to ignore such talk for his own safety. My sister had the requisite talk with her three young sons about being polite and respectful to police officers when they are pulled over for traffic stops.

It seems that every black woman, whom society treats more gently, has a story to tell concerning her fears for her husband, boyfriend, sons, nephews, or cousins. Every time a young black man is gunned down, a sword pierces the hearts of black women everywhere.

My fiancé—a tall, dark-skinned, athletic-looking black man who favors sweats, hoodies, and sneakers—seems to encounter racism every day and everywhere. One woman drew her children into a huddle as he passed her on the library steps. While I move invisibly through my routine tasks, I was taken aback at a white woman’s reaction to his presence in the grocery aisle. You could see the look of fear on her face, until she realized he was shopping with me.

Our God is a God of justice, who created all of humankind “out of one” in its diverse expressions. I know he weeps with bereft parents like Davis’s and Martin’s. But he also weeps over the hatred, ignorance, and fear in the hearts of those who kill based on someone’s race.

As Chris Cuomo of CNN stated a few days after the Dunn verdict, there must be a new trial, because the verdict as is, which effectively sends Dunn to prison for life, has nonetheless brought “no resolution on the question of the value of human life.”

And that value, in God’s sight? Priceless.

This article was originally published in Christianity Today, March 2014.

I Get You L’Wren: Thoughts on Suicide & Depression

showbiz-lwren-scott-3I was greatly affected by the death this past March of designer and Rolling Stone girlfriend L’Wren Scott. Unlike a number of commentators, I had heard of her before, and did think of her first as a fashion designer, not as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend.

There was something haunting in the way (it was reported) that she tied one of her own scarves around her neck, and hung herself from a French door; her assistant found her kneeling lifeless on the floor.

Despite the fact that friends were quoted as saying that she had seemed fine in the weeks leading up to her suicide, later reporting relying on anonymous close friends, indicated that she had, in fact, been down in the dumps in the weeks leading up to her taking the final solution. It also was reported that that she had previously tried to “hurt herself.”

Yes, she had financial troubles (but a multi-millionaire boyfriend); and yes, she was forced to shutter her business; and maybe she was frustrated by her non-marriage to Mick and the fact that her childbearing years had passed her by.

But of one thing I am certain: L’Wren Scott was suffering from depression.

For those who have never been in its dark grasp, when depression descends, the very same facts that seem innocuous or par for the course most days, can take on a totally different and sinister meaning. Being depressed means feeling that all of life is hopeless and pointless. It means not being able to sleep; but also not being able to wake. It means losing one’s appetite or doing nothing but eat. It means that time stretches ahead like an eternity, an ocean of hopelessness, days battering the shores of your life with tormenting regularity; restless night leading to hopeless white daylight.

I get you, L’Wren, even though I am someone who believes in God, in accountability to him, in life after death; and that suicide cannot bring a life to an end.

And sometimes those are the only things that stop a believer from ending it all.
I, too, suffer from depression. Mine is biological, as many depressions are. I think people misunderstand depression and look for reasons why someone would want to end their lives … a lost job, loss of finances, loss of someone we love. But most people who experience these things know they must go on.

When mental illness is added into the picture, these things can become a trigger, and one’s very life becomes endangered.

When my medication is regulated, I am a happy, optimistic and productive person. When I am depressed, I become an empty shell, a vacant house.

If someone is not a believer, has never felt that life holds a greater purpose, and that suffering can in fact be redemptive, then indeed, why not “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die?”

The Book of Ecclesiastes is the Bible’s most direct book in its illustration of a life without greater purpose and without God. The author, whom many believe to be King Solomon, experiments with all of the things that humans think will make them happy: fruitful toil, a beautiful home, gardens, and vineyards, abundant wealth, entertainment, and sexual pleasure: “I denied myself nothing by eyes desired.”

Yet, he also concludes, “Everything was meaningless, a chasing after wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” No matter how long he toiled, or what he accumulated or accomplished, it was all “folly” because it would end up being enjoyed by another. Pessimistically, he writes, “for the wise man, like the fool, will not long be remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man will die!”

The writer then looks beyond himself, to the misery in the world, seeing the oppressed, “and that power was on the side of oppression … And I declared that the dead, who had already died are happier than the living who are still alive; but better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not yet seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Ah, yes. Depression causes us to focus on all that is wrong. It steals life’s small pleasures — like a cup of hot aromatic coffee in the morning, the love of a pet, the smell of a flower, the hug of a loved one. It says to its victim, “all is meaningless, there is no meaning under the sun.”

With the recent spate of young and middle-aged bankers ending their lives through suicide, including one of the founding CEOs of Bitcoin, a virtual currency start-up; with the resurgence of heroin ravaging the middle-class; with disaffected young people shooting others before killing themselves, it is clear that there is something amiss.

There is a vacancy in our hearts that can only be filled by God. As St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they can find rest in thee.”

Shifting light and shortening days seem to exacerbate my depression. Last fall, when I was last depressed, such things as having the check-engine light come back on in my car after having spent hundreds of dollars in repairs (including the emissions system), felt like the end of the world. Some financial problems seemed insurmountable. I felt I couldn’t go on because my situation had become untenable.

Less than six months later, I discovered that my car’s problem was not an expensive catalytic converter, but a small fix that would cost $120, (and anyway, I had bought a new car prior to the next inspection date) and the mountain of debt that had so overwhelmed me was solved with a rather painless debt consolidation. In short, things that had looked so hopeless, were, in fact just ordinary blips on the road we call life.

I wish I could’ve told L’Wren this. There is only one constant in life and that is change. If today is a hopeless, depressing day, tomorrow could be the best day of your life.

And I would echo, with the preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” And in so doing, discover life’s purpose and joy that no-one and nothing can take away.