All posts by Hannah Adair Bonner

Hannah Adair Bonner is the Director of Frontera Wesley, The Wesley Foundation of Tucson. She was ordained in the United Methodist Church in 2012.

“Stop Thinking About Stupid Things”

“You’re thinking about stupid things.” This statement, spoken in Alex’s signature western Virginia accent – at once both relaxed as a cat sunning itself on a windowsill and as effortlessly confident as a Presidential Address – is exactly why I love this guy. “So what,” he continues “People are talking about you – people are always talking about me. Most of what they say about me isn’t true, so who cares?”

Without even knowing it, he had hit on what was currently one of my most fervent spiritual disciplines and personal growth efforts – not concerning myself with what people say about me; in other words, not being consumed and distracted by things I simply cannot control. Alex had recognized that glassy eyed look that those who know me well cannot mistake – the look I get when I am having trouble engaging my mind in the moment and answering a simple question someone has asked me. I always try my hardest to answer the question posed, making a sincere attempt at seeming like I am present with them, even though they might as well be talking to a zombie because my mind is in a hot air balloon far above earth struggling with philosophers and ethicists to solve whatever dilemma has taken my brain captive. This is what, since childhood, has happened when a stranger would interrupt my mental acrobats by asking my name or my age – I am usually rendered helpless to answer them for an awkwardly long amount of time. Those who know me best find this to be incredibly charming… I mean irritating. Although, for my part, I insist it is harmless.

This tendency towards rumination may be one of my greatest obstacles to relaxing, for the merit of physical rest or recreation is severely limited when the mind is still hard at work. Couple this with one of the most persistent fears that plagues the feminine mind – ‘are people talking about me instead of to me’ – and you’ve got one brilliantly potent recipe for receiving a molasses slow response from me.

“Stop thinking about stupid things,” Alex’s simple advice for enjoying life is hard to resist; in fact, as hard as my solemn mind tries to fight it, a slow grin crips over my face as I appreciate how steady – and for the record absolutely correct – my friend is.

Not yet at Alex’s level of expertise on enjoying life, I find myself fighting some antiquated, Jane-Austen-inspired notion that a woman’s reputation is all she has – her most valuable asset or her most feared liability. The power of this notion has diminished as women have found increasing freedom and no longer have to hope against hope that Mr. Darcy will show up and rescue them from spinsterhood and its accompanying poverty. Yet, for all of those Elizabeth Elliot wanna-be’s like myself, the idolatry of reputation and the fear of gossip can be a serious bondage – causing us to live stifled, repressed lives in which there is simply too much reading and too little dancing.

This fear is not limited to women, however. I remember having male mentors who would countless times caution me against making some statement or taking some kind of stand with the warnings that I would “get a reputation.” The word ‘reputation’ seemed to bear so much terror for a Methodist pastor in the itinerant system that it seemed they whispered the word with an edge of iciness in their voice that made it seem they were speaking about a newly discovered fatal disease that specifically targeted women in their early twenties with a call to ministry. So much fear seemed to pervade the itinerant culture, that from my earliest encounter with it I have known that to submit to the fear would be to lose who I was.

“Stop thinking about stupid things” – seems, then, to be an excellent new mantra for this journey. Enough of these “stupid things,” I tell myself, you’re living on Eleuthera for goodness sake – it would be a betrayal of the island’s name and its mindset to fail to embrace a little bit of freedom for once in your life.

“Stop thinking about stupid things” is only one of countless life lessons that I owe to Alex, and to our dearly departed Jess (departed from the island not from life – calm down). In between guitar lessons, trips to the clinic, and quality time with the chickens, I have learned the simple pleasure of enjoying another person’s company – without trying to accomplish anything else while doing so. Jess and Alex call this skill “chilling.”

Chilling is never something that has come easy to me; instead “collapsing” is the skill that I have acquired after five years of pastoral ministry with too much isolation, shoulder-crushing pressures, and persistently insufficient resources. The last couple years of balancing two “part-time” jobs, the expectations and pressures became dangerously unrealistic. No lie, I actually kept track of how I spent every moment of every day on my iCal, and there are portions where I did not know what else to write in my calendar but “Collapsed.” That’s right, “Collapsed” from 8:00 pm until 10:00 pm – that was my big event for the evening.

Unfortunately, being burdened with excessively unrealistic expectations, bordering on magical thinking, does not raise red flags or set off alarms for me as a life-long multi-tasker. It is as if the 9 volt battery in some internal alarm died long ago and no one ever found a ladder to climb up and replace it. My willingness to take on a “challenge” borders on the masochistic, still I stubbornly cling to the belief that hope simply cannot be defeated. Even in childhood, I prided myself on my multi-tasking – the ability to do many things at once that is the feared and ancient nemesis of “chilling.” I would find myself fidgeting with some craft while watching a movie as a kid; or end up reading an average of four books a day in fourth grade because the teachers did not know what to do with me when I finished my work so much earlier than the rest of the class. It is decidedly time, however, for my work habits, as well as my fierce understanding of hope, to chill out a bit.

In fact, I have become quite convinced that this whole “chilling” thing that Jess and Alex have been teaching me is very directly related to something God has been trying to teach me my whole life.

“Be still… and know… that I… am God.”

I feel fairly confident that learning to “chill” is an essential step in the process of learning to “be.”

Jess and Alex "chilling" in Hatchet Bay while I ran around multi-tasking ;-)
Jess and Alex “chilling” in Hatchet Bay while I ran around multi-tasking 😉
Manex and Alex "chilling" with my sweet little guitar... while I multi-tasked practicing guitar and hanging laundry on the line ;-)
Manex and Alex “chilling” with my sweet little guitar… while I multi-tasked practicing guitar and hanging laundry on the line 😉
Alex and Jess "chilling" at the dock of the bay... while I multi-task by picking up the pizza Manex ordered for us.
Alex and Jess “chilling” at the dock of the bay… while I multi-task by picking up the pizza Manex ordered for us.

“All those things in life…”

“How will you tell our story when we are gone?” Things don’t always end how and when we want them to, and for the Bahamas Methodist interns, the decision has been that their injuries are serious enough to send them home for recuperation. Preparing for their departure; taking leave of new friends that have quickly become like family; some of them can’t help but wonder what version of the narrative future visitors and volunteers will hear. “Will we be described as naive? As victims of a freak accident? As heroic?” For better or for worse, many people on the island seem to be under the impression that they are neither naive nor heroic, but deceased after news spread that they were struck by a rogue wave while walking on the cliffs. Thanks be to God, that narrative is not true, but it is hard to leave not knowing how their story will be told.

Several years ago, when I started in pastoral ministry in North Carolina, a particularly wise Bahamian told me that I must make sure to always tell my story. He told me that my story was my truth, only I knew it and only I could tell it. But if I did not tell it, there would always be people willing to rush in and tell it for me whether it was the truth or not.

That reality is expressed in few places as surely as the church – we love to tell one another’s stories, often with as much enthusiasm and visceral delight as we find in telling the “old, old story, of Jesus and his love.” Stories about others, sometimes called rumors, are traded like rare and valuable baseball cards, that once obtained give a great sense of pride to the owner until they are traded up for something even more valuable.

This can produce anxiety… if you let it. Yet, for our departing interns, as for me, as for you, as for us all, the key is not what story will be told, the key is what story will be lived. Our own actions and our own words are the only thing any of us have authentic control over. That action, called self-control, is a virtue and a fruit of the spirit – while control of others and what they say and do is neither virtue nor fruit. A simple modifying noun makes all the difference. I’ve lived off the high of trading stories and trying to control the world around me enough to know that it is a high that is neither authentic, nor lasting, nor satisfying. It seems the more we try to control what is not ours to control, the less control we truly have; for in the act of control of others, we have lost control of self.

“All those things in life. All those things in life. When you’re dead and you’re gone to Jesus, all those things in life going to be gone.”

I’m shaken out of my reflections by the groans from the woman in the flowered straw hat on the clinic bench beside me. Waiting for the interns wounds to be rebandaged, I sit beside an elderly woman who is writhing in pain after falling and bruising her knee the night before.

“All those things in life. All those things in life. When you’re dead and you’re gone to Jesus, all those things in life…”

She’s right, you know. All those things in life that frustrate you, when you’re dead and gone to Jesus, that is all that they are going to be – all those things in life.

But as right as she is, all those things in life can feel awfully important while you are living through them – and as much as her mind denies it, her body well knows it as she arches her back and throws herself against my shoulder moaning, “All those things in life… All those things in life.”

Helpless to do anything to ease her anguish, all I can offer is my agreement. Yes, all those things in life… all those things in life… we must learn to live more gently through all these things in life.

As we left the clinic, we went back to the cliffs that they had been dragged down. (Don’t worry Abe, not close enough to get caught by another rogue wave, just close enough to observe from a distance). Jess, Alex & Alicia were able to see and remember and begin to understand what had happened to them. And because they were better able to understand their story, they will now be better able to tell it. So friends, go home and tell your story, but be patient with yourself. Some stories take time to tell. Some stories we must tell to ourselves before we can tell them to others. And remember, as long as your life is not over, neither is your story, and the end of the story is never final – it is always be rewritten every moment, every hour, every day.

As you return home, there are many things that you will have no more control over than that rogue wave that arched over you with its white fury. Continue to write your ever-evolving story as you look to yourself to see where you place your feet, for those feet are the only thing you have control over. And look to God, who is no more controllable than your rogue wave, but much more merciful and who always has your best interests in mind.

“All those things in life. All those things in life…” Let us learn to live more loving, through all these things in life.

The edge of the water near the cliffs that a rogue wave overwhelmed
The edge of the water near the cliffs that a rogue wave overwhelmed

Sea of Stars

“Care for a cup?” This is the way every day should start, I say to myself, as Leroy goes to get me a cup of his special blend. Coconut water and pulp from the trees out front. Milk. Sugar. Stir. Its pretty much the best thing you’ll ever put in your mouth. Electrolytes, they tell me, electrolytes are why you drink it. It will make you stand up tall and ready to take on the day. Yet, certain that no amount of coconuts will make me taller, and already prepared to take on the day, I drink it for one reason alone. It is absolutely delicious.

And after three days of teasing me to go in the kitchen and fix him a meal, Manex does what is at the same time both unexpected and inevitable – he makes us breakfast. I decide that this morning what I have witnessed is not a feminist victory, but an authentic act of kindness and so I receive it with appropriate gratitude. Chicken eggs freshly gathered from the hen house are transformed under the delicate touch of BMH‘s Assistant Construction Coordinator into what may just be the most perfect over easy eggs I have ever seen.

This day has begun with what I felt sure were heroic acts of community and love. This day had begun just about as well as the night before it had ended.

The night in question had ended as Jess and Alex and I had lain flat on our backs on the rooftop patio of BMH counting the shooting stars that crossed overhead. It was amazing to me that the longer I lay there, the more stars appeared – as if the sky that arcs over the surrounding sea was a sea unto itself in which more bright specks of light floated to the surface the longer you watched. Our eyes, becoming accustomed to the darkness, spotted one shooting star after another as our mouths and hands took turns pointing and crying out “there’s another!”

After a long day that ended in a vigorous hour of play with the local school children, we had debated for probably about an hour how to spend the evening; the lackadaisical conversation somehow itself becoming the evening’s activity. How should we spend one of the last nights that Jess and Alex would be on the island. Beach? Too likely to fall with their injuries. Movie? Really? On a beautiful Bahamian night? But pondering the stars, spread across the sky in a quantity I have never seen before – that was an activity worthy of such a night.

I reflected on how unlikely a choice this would be for me back home. With so many distractions – gadgets – television – cable – phonecalls – “to do” lists – deadlines. Stars? Who has time for that? And yet, in that moment, it was hard to believe that I had ever spent an evening in any other manner.

As we lay on our backs, spread out around the roof, completely horizontal, we took a poll to gauge our tiredness factor – Alex was at 6 of 10, Jess and I were at about 7. Not quite ready to sleep, but getting there. I decide that I will wait for just one more shooting star to cross the sky. And after that one more. And one more. And maybe just one more.

This vibrant, moving, shifting sky is a place I can easily imagine sleeping under; truly, more than just imagine sleeping under, long to sleep under. But knowing that while that choice could easily be made in the intoxicating darkness, by daylight my body would be swollen with bug bites and scolding its nocturnal half like a chiding spouse. Yet, it is hard to pull myself away. Growing up camping, I have always loved sleeping under the stars. When I was a child, I was given glow in the dark stars for Christmas. Predictably, like the focused and determined child I was, I took a star map and painstakingly applied them to my ceiling. Even now, when I am home, I delight in turning out the lights and watching the night sky and constellations burst into view above my head.

But this sky shows me something altogether different. No static, stationary, pasted-in-place stars here. These stars twinkle, they pop, they soar across the sky in shooting arcs. This sky is alive. Just as alive as this place. And I realize it is all moving, all alive. The plants in the brush. The water in the sea. Even the stars in the sky. Unlike the fixed, concrete world I have spent so much time in – this world is alive.

I long to come alive like this place. Not to be bound, stuck, stationary. Not to be predictable, common place, anticipated. There is no way that an imitation of life can be acceptable once the authentic thing has been experienced. And with that I rejoice and give thanks to this great, powerful, mysterious, uncontrollable, unpredictable God who “danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.” No, not give thanks to God, I give thanks with God, knowing that God rejoices in my delight just as I rejoice in God’s.

And with that, I slip away to bed, unsuspecting that the morning would hold its own divine delights as Leroy and Manex, now asleep in their beds, would whip up blessings of encouragement and fellowship for my injured friends and I. But not quite yet. For a few more hours this narrow strip of land would slumber, as I did, surrounded below by its sea of liquid mystery and above by God’s endless sea of stars.

Leroy and I share a coconut during our hard day's work.
Leroy and I share a coconut during our hard day’s work.

First Day on Eleuthera

Bleary eyed, I pull on socks, tie my shoes, and stumble out into the sunlight. A chronic addict to the snooze button, this morning has been no different. Tomorrow, I promise myself, tomorrow I’ll get up at the first sound… or then again, maybe I won’t… and if I don’t, I won’t be mad at myself. With this much more reasonable promise to myself, my orange and pink Mizunos carry me off down the lane of the Bahamas Methodist Habitat. Thus, begins my first day back on Eleuthera.

As I turn the corner back from my morning jog into Camp Symonette, I am reminded that the hens have not yet received their morning greeting from me. My eyes are happy to discover that the chickens have indeed made their daily contribution to the household economy – four eggs – two in their proper places in the nesting boxes – and two, as Brenda had predicted, near the feed bin where the creative ladies of the coop offered evidence of their outside-of-the-box thinking.

I wash the eggs, which I later find out I should not do. Sometimes I have that tendency to try to make things too neat, too clean, too tidy. Sometimes with people, as with eggs, it is better to let them be. Leave the smudge of dirt across their cheek alone, which shows they have been doing good, honest work. Let them make their messes and clean them up how and when they want to… or not at all.

While erring slightly in my egg hunting mission, it has in no way been fatally botched and new tasks await. Back in the sleeping quarters, Pauline is already sweeping up a storm, finishing up the remnants, I assume, from last weeks “fly in.” There is no shortage of work to do after the three interns injured themselves in a rogue wave the day before I arrived. Rather than being swept out to sea, Alex, Alicia and Jess escaped with some pretty serious cuts and scrapes after being dragged across the razor sharp rocks. The powerful feeling of gratitude that my friends are alive and whole has been a bit of a surreal experience ever since I realized the seriousness of their ordeal. With the energy and enthusiasm that sincere gratitude produces, I would be willing to sweep up anything they wanted me to, and so I grab a broom and join Pauline.

After feeding the convalescing interns breakfast, Brenda arrives and takes me on a tour of the garden.

I had chosen to come back to the island for a good bit of time in order to be quiet with God, and I could think of no better place to do that than in a garden. There have been many places were I sensed God – creativity and love flowing down as sunlight filters through new green leaves in the spring – mystery and power tumbling forward and receding back at the mercy of an ocean’s wave – stability and wisdom standing firmly planted among a valley of boulders. But something internal and ancient tells me that there is no better place to find quiet and peace with God than in a garden; the place where God first loved us and where God intended us to be.

Wandering through the garden, Brenda tells me that the banana trees need their leaves trimmed. Dead leaves that are taking life from the tree need to be released so that nutrients can flow into the new growth and help it to thrive. Trimming the leaves helps the banana tree make better use of its resources, grow taller and produce fruit. There’s a sermon in that I know, but right now is not the time. Now is the time to be quiet with God, to work hard with my hands instead of my head, and to find myself with that smudge of honest dirt across my cheek.

The mulberries, I am told, have some bugs eating up their leaves. New berries that have begun to sprout may never get the chance to change from vibrant green to deepest purple if the insect invasion is not interrupted. Orange trees to the right, lime trees to the left; just a little weeding should make them happy. Watermelons to be watered in the evening. Tomatoes to be examined and thinned.

The case of the pineapples is an especially delicate one. Pineapples take 18 months to grow, Brenda tells me, and they are already 6 months into that investment of time and growth. What a sadness it would be to lose them when they are already so far along the path. My mind wanders to all the passionate young leaders I have seen walk away from the church… years of investment… ready to produce fruit… but then I bring my mind back to the garden. This time is not about the church’s problems, or my peers problems, or the many other problems that I simply cannot fix. This time is about God and me and a garden.

Green leaves. Turquoise water. Gray rocks. Warm sun. Green leaves. Turbulent waves. Honest work. Simple life. Breathe.

A few hours later, filthy and satisfied, I am looking at the freshly trimmed, freshly weeded, freshly watered banana trees. They look to me as if they too can breathe easier now.

I tell Pauline that I am walking to Miss Lee’s to get lunch. She laughs at me, for who would walk that far on an empty stomach when they could drive. But despite her kind advice, I insist on walking. I’m not choosing to do anything the faster way today.

The sun sets over the BMH garden
The sun sets over the BMH garden