When Spirit Starts Scratching

Speed Limit 3By Tommy Airey

The first time I heard her was in the middle of the night. She woke me up. I dragged my angry ass out of bed and bee-lined it for the bathroom. I strained straight up and pounded on the ceiling. Her scratching stopped. For five seconds, all was quiet on Washtenaw Avenue. But she would return. And would keep returning night after blessed night.

About 72 hours after the first episode, Lindsay and I hypothesized that the serial scratcher was a raccoon. Her nocturnal lifestyle gave her away. After midnight, she let it all hang out, hauling in branches and pinecones and rocks. The havoc played out in the vent that became her home that winter. Sometimes it sounded like she was playing a friendly game of marbles. Sometimes we were certain the light fixtures were going to crash through the ceiling. A raccoon roommate is like having an uncle who watches Fox News. He shows up at the worst times and he’s impossible to ignore.

Six weeks into this adventure, our landlord caught the cuddly creature in a trap on the roof of our triplex. She boarded the train for euthanasia. And, lo and behold, the scratching continued. There were two of them shacking up there. Sometimes Spirit needs to second the motions to get our attention. Sometimes Spirit scratches thousands of times even after we’ve struggled to hear. Jesus taught that Spirit persists like a widow seeking justice. I say She scratches like a pair of raccoons.

A month after the scratching started, our friends Bryan and Tom invited us to The University of Michigan School of Social Work for a keynote address from adrienne maree brown, a Detroit-based community organizer and author who had recently released a book called Emergent Strategy. brown doesn’t use capital letters in her name because she wants to keep the attention on the substance of her work. It is substantive, flowing from her heart and experience. brown is familiar with suffering, being both Black and queer.

That morning, she scratched out a sketch of a world no longer dependent on other people’s suffering. She assured us: this will take some serious sacrifice. Those of us persistently scratching for a new world—in peace and justice organizations, in our families and faith communities—would need to learn to transform our values and practices at the interpersonal level. brown lambasted the punitive nature of an American culture that is both pro-war and anti-conflict. The air we breathe is poisoned by passive-aggressive behavior.

brown was speaking to those of us on the Left. She challenged us to pursue “attention liberation” by boycotting the daily tirades and tweets of the current occupier of the White House. We need to get our own house in order. She lamented our language litmus tests (it’s “houseless” not “homeless!”). We quickly evict partners in the work who aren’t woke enough. Social media fuels this fire with our self-congratulatory and judgmental posts, drawing a line in the sand, shaming and blaming those who don’t get it. So we approach social analysis with fear and trembling. No one wants to be associated with racism, hetero-patriarchy and imperial violence. No one wants to be misunderstood or micromanaged either.

The way forward, she proposed, is learning to be dope mushrooms in a world of oak trees. It’s not about making a big impression or knowing all the correct answers. Critical connections are far more important than critical mass. This era yearns for healthy relationships and interdependent living. However, scratching together requires a direct form of communication that transcends self-righteousness. This has proven very hard to come by.

In her book, brown homes in on a key trend: change agents engaged in struggles for freedom and justice are mired in toxic systems. She pinpoints four major symptoms that seem to be scratching everywhere:

  1. conflict avoidance
  2. mission drift
  3. over-commitment
  4. burnout as a badge of honor

These resonated intensely with us. In late Summer 2014, Lindsay and I left suburban Southern California for Detroit to apprentice to leaders who had been taking their cues from the margins for decades. They were navigating massive and multi-faceted oppressions: illegal tax foreclosures, water shutoffs, school closings, crippled infrastructure, dilapidated housing, joblessness, mass incarceration, environmental racism and, yes, houselessness.

In this milieu, the pressure to be at every meeting, march, rally and action was intense. And when we were there, there was more pressure: to say all the right things at all the right times in all the right ways. In addition, rest and margin were schlepped off. This activist drive was rarely mentioned. But it was always modeled. Get there. Because nothing is more important.

In her work, brown confronts this mentality by challenging leaders to move at the speed of trust and to put less focus on prep and more on presence. What we pay attention to grows. So we must be very careful about what we are paying attention to. “I am listening now with all of my senses,” brown writes, “as if the whole universe might exist just to teach me more about love.” With the power of love saturating the universe, failure is a myth. There are only lessons.

In brown’s voice, I heard echoes of Jesus of Nazareth who communicated directly, stayed on mission, put up boundaries and stayed centered and emotionally available. He pissed off the pastors and priests when he released the guilt and shame that paralyzed the man. Back in the day, granting forgiveness was reserved for religious officials. Jesus stole their job and distributed to everyone else. That same night, he scandalized the sanctified again. He dined with the ostracized, quoting the bible in between bites: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). Relationship replaced ritual. Intimacy upended institution.

brown and Jesus both lament leaders who play games with power and purity. Too many parents, pastors and Presidents offer forgiveness and freedom on the basis of what we believe, where we’re from, who we love or what we look like. But steadfast love is the spiritual empowerment model offered to those paralyzed and ostracized by organized religion. Steadfast love releases us from the shame-driven need to be granted legitimacy by someone official. Because steadfast love means we are all official now.

Sure enough, Spirit was seconding the motions all over the place. At the 12-step meetings I was attending, fellow codependents were consistently confessing that only a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. I had believed in cosmic companionship for quite some time. However, belief was too often locked up in my head as I struggled to walk it out with my life. I was clingy and controlling. I was caught in a chronic condition of feeling worthless and devalued.

For as long as I could remember I had lived to meet the expectations of others. As though I had to earn every bit of my worth. From them. I claimed that I believed that I was a child of a divinity of self-donating crucified love, but I was fully conditioned by the ideologies of capitalism, whiteness and patriarchy. These principalities prodded me to find value by seeking approval and acceptance through hard work and ingenuity, finding solutions and knowing answers. The other option was to find identity and vocation by simply being an extension of steadfast love Herself. Only She can restore me to sanity.

Then, two months after the raccoon moved in, Lindsay scratched out this powerful relational wisdom:

I don’t think we ultimately have fulfilling, honest, satisfying, challenging, life-giving, nurturing relationships by carefully tip-toe-ing around each other trying to be on our best behavior all the time. If anything, I think a problem in long-term relationships can be being too polite and trying not to ruffle feathers, rock the boat, or else really co-dependently trying to read the other persons’ wants, needs and desires, instead of helping and trusting each other to define our own selves. I’m more and more convinced real empowerment (personal and political) comes from finding the locus of power within ourselves, rather than making it contingent on someone else’s behavior.

This was the fundamental shift that I was struggling to make. I was mired in a toxic combination of shame and self-hatred. As a result, I struggled to release resentment, guilt and criticism. I was driven by the perceived disappointments of others. My ears were not attuned to the scratching of Spirit prodding me to love myself enough to make decisions that respected what was best for me.

These are still my struggles. But I am slowly learning to find the locus of power within myself. Sometimes I choose steadfast love over sacrifice. Instead of living for the expectations of others, I am learning simply to be an extension of steadfast love. I am listening for all the ways that Spirit is seconding the motions by scratching out love and wisdom all around me. And, above all, I am grateful that She stopped sending us raccoons.

Tommy Airey was born and raised on stolen, unceded Acjachemen territory (“Orange County, California”), was transformed by the thin place the Ojibwe, Huron and Odawa call Wawiiatanong (“Detroit River”) and has entered the sacred “hidden waters” the Molalla and Paiute named Towarnehiooks (“Deschutes River, Oregon”). He and his wife-partner Lindsay work for Kardia Kaiomenē, a community-supported non-profit, partnering with families and faith communities to equip and accompany all those whose hearts burn for intimacy, community and justice. Tommy’s articles have appeared in The Christian Century, Sojourners Magazine, The Mennonite and Geez Magazine. He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.Net, book review editor for Geez Magazine and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).

One thought on “When Spirit Starts Scratching

  1. Oscar (Oz) Cole-Arnal

    Hi Tommy,

    As one who, so very much of the time, flees the Spirit & her Christ, I love your images of the persistent ITCH of the Gospel. And, those crazy & “impossible” racoons also touch me, precisely because in the last 3 decades of my life married to Bonnie (whether in her rural parish or her semi-rural town charge or in the suburbs of our city since retirement) we have been reminded & harassed by that pesky masked critter we call “the racoon”–a wonderful & constant presence that causes us to grind our teeth yet will never leave us.

    Your bro in the PESKY & PERSISTENT Christ,

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