I kept pondering this week’s theme, being thunderstruck. What exactly does it mean? Is it a good thing? A bad thing? I googled it, I looked in the dictionary, I watched an AC/DC video called Thunderstruck, nothing really helped. The answer seems ambiguous at best.
However, it had me thinking about a popular quote from Marianne Williamson. She says,
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
When I moved out to California I never meant to stay. In fact I only planned to be here for a year. After that I was going to move back home to Ohio to continue working on a community organizing center that I’d been dreaming of for a long time. The plan was to come out here for a while to decompress, fill out all the necessary paperwork, but then go back.
At the time home was a place of grief. Friends were dying, going to prison, or simply just fading away. Heroin and loss hung like a heavy cloud over the town, along with shame and silence. I’d lost so many I loved.
I had only been back in town a year or so before I’d left it again. I had just spent about 3 years in college in New York. I’d wanted to make it to the big city, to escape the smallness of home, but I couldn’t quite afford it. Instead I was accepted to a school on Long Island. At the time it seemed like the perfect compromise. Close to the city, near water, more affordable. It’s laughable how little I knew. Just for reference, Hempstead Long Island is absolutely nothing like Manhattan. Nothing.
When I moved home after college I’d picked up the dream. I’d started working on the center when I was 13 and while we had gotten close to bringing it to fruition it had fallen apart my senior year of high school. I desperately wanted a place for youth in the town to go where they could feel valuable, inspired, and connected. I wanted them to be able to break through the silence and shame that surrounded things like depression, self-harm, substance use, and violence. But I also wanted a place where they could make art, play music, share poetry, and learn about the issues that were directly impacting their lives. I wanted them, us, to find joy, hope.
But it turns out that it’s hard to build a community center alone.
When I came to California I moved into a garage in SOMA in San Francisco. I lived with three of my closest friends and for the first time in my life I gave myself permission to prioritize fun. After all this was supposed to be a break. So I went out more, I dated, I danced. My housemates and I laid in Dolores park and ate burritos. Or we sat at home with take out and built a fire in the fireplace. We had fun. And in the midst of it all I worked, went to trainings about how to form your own non-profit, and filled out government forms.
As the end of the year drew closer I grew more and more anxious. Out of stubbornness and love for my community I was committed to going back. For me this San Francisco life felt like a sort of never-never land, a place where people never had to grow up, and I swore I wouldn’t get sucked into it. But one night when I was debating whether or not I should return my friend Kristina asked me a question that changed everything. “What’s different?”, she asked, “Has anything changed?”.
The answer cracked through me, clear, sharp, and quick. No. Nothing had changed. I would be going back to the same struggles, the same sadness. Still for the next month I wrestled with my decision. Choosing to stay felt selfish but going home felt impossible. I felt guilty for leaving people I loved while they were hurting. I felt guilty for having fun, I felt guilty that my days were no longer layered with grief.
In the end I chose to stay, this June will mark 9 years. I still feel the occasional pang of guilt but now I also recognize the incredible ego of thinking that my presence would somehow save the people or the town I love. Both deserve much more respect than that.
That quote from Marianne Willamson reminds me of this time in my life. A time when darkness was still more comfortable than light. A time when shining felt contrary to surviving.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. Not to suffer. Not to pay penance.
At home, where we actually have thunderstorms, we would try to guess how far away a storm was by counting the seconds between the flash of lightning and the roll of thunder. The more time that past, the further away the storm was. I am far from that particular storm but its implications still thunder through me.
Where do you find your flashes of inspiration? What lights up your mind and heart? What calls to you? What roars inside you again and again so that you cannot ignore it?
One of my mentors told me once that you should pay attention to what makes you cry and what weighs the most in your house. He said those were clues to discovering your purpose and your gifts. I’ve thought of that often over the years. I’ve noticed that I rarely leave a church service or a community event where people speak the most vulnerable truths, without tearing up. I look around my room and I see boxes of journals and rows of books about unconventional people who risk to create ritual and brave communal spaces.
What gives you your shine? Where does it come from? Who reflects it? What blocks it?
Perhaps that is what it means to be thunderstruck. It is the awe and agony of recognition. It helps to show us our path, it lets us know what demands a response from us. We feel it in our bodies. Our breath catches, our heart skips a beat, or our muscles freeze. We are gripped, bewildered, aghast.
A few weeks ago I was talking to my Spiritual Director, a brilliant woman named Joellyn Monahan. I was venting frustrations about seminary and the process of ordination. As a student and an intern it has been my job to learn, listen, and discern my call. It has been an incredible gift. But sometimes, when I think long term, I feel bogged down by the logistics, the bureaucracy. There are so many choices, so many challenges. On that day I found myself talking like life was a chore. But in her sly way Joellyn quietly pulled me out.
She asked me about what energizes me. What do I love about churches? What do I want to learn in seminary? Why am I doing this? I thought about how desperately I wanted to help create a space where people could be raw and honest. A place where people could connect to something larger than them, share their gifts, and find some ground, some inspiration. I confessed, for the first time, that I sometimes day dreamed about what it would be like to start my own church.
“Why don’t you?”, she asked.
I sat still as it rumbled through me. A moment of flash and recognition. Not a certainty but a possibility. Things that once felt disparate seemed to come together. A path laid out behind me and in front of me. I was thunderstruck.
For the first time in a long time I talked about that community organizing center from the past and how ten years ago I’d written a manifesto for a new church. I told her all the reasons why these things didn’t make sense but even as I did I heard a thread of connection. The community center, running a drop in office for survivors, going to seminary, working in a church. Suddenly they all felt aligned. Suddenly nothing was strange anymore. She’d helped me see the way I’d always been doing this work. Since I was young. It was not new and it certainly was not impossible.
We are conduits for the divine. Lightning rods of creation. Just as Kristina and Joellyn produced a spark for me, each of you offers a spark to someone else. You may never know what thunder rolls through someone as a result of your light. We are connected in that way. There can be no thunder without lightning.
“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
I did not betray those I love by choosing happiness. I am exactly where I am meant to be. We, are exactly where we are meant to be. The path may be winding or dark or lonely at times. We may find ourselves confused, but we are right on time. We are never late for our own lives. And we betray no one by choosing our light.
As we continue through the Dark Wood this season let us remember that we are each children of God and powerful beyond measure. We were meant to shine.