Trees and Taize…

I’m into the third week of my program here at San Francisco Theological Seminary and I am thinking about many things…but most of all, trees and Taize.  Just indulge me, for a moment.

As a traveler, I always do the best I can to experience the place I am visiting, so of course I have devoted any spare moment to exploration.  I spent hours in the beautiful Sonoma Valley and the Russian River Valley and last weekend I visited the Sonoma coast;  but what touches my imagination and my spirit most is, well, the trees.

Redwoods, that is. The big trees.  I first visited Muir Woods 15 years ago and those trees have lived on in my memory as magnificent creations of God and guardians of a history that individual human beings simply cannot span.   So I visited Muir Woods again on this trip, on our mid-program Sabbath afternoon.  This last weekend, however, while touring the wine country’s outer reaches, I stopped at the Armstrong Woods Reserve Park.

The two experiences were polar opposites.  Muir Woods, beautiful, with beautiful easy paths and boardwalks, a cafe and a gift shop, was also full of tourists from all over the world — tourists who failed to read the sign requesting IMG_3716“quiet” as you enter the forest.  It is, for me, impossible to experience these redwood giants without a sense of reverence, even in the midst of French tourists jumping over the boundary line clearly marked with a “Stay on the Path” sign so that they could stand next to the tree for a better picture, so the experience was still a wonderful one.

Armstrong Woods, however, that much further from San Francisco and therefore not subjected to Grey Line tours advertising “Muir Woods and Sausalito,” provided a true experience of mystery.  In an early morning fog and mist, I approached the entrance to the park.  It was deserted — only two cars in the parking lot, no one at the ranger station. After studying the trail map, I decided that it was okay to continue into the park and began my walk along the Pioneer Trail.  And as I wandered deeper and deeper into the mist and the trees and the lichen-covered logs that form the forest floor, from deep inside me something began to take shape.

A song.  A song from chapel during these past weeks.  A song in the style of Taize; a song quoting from the wonderful text of Psalm 1:

Water our lives with ever-flowing streams of your grace
Bear in our lives, creating God, the living fruits of your love
(Text: Andrew Dreitcer, from Psalm 1:3, music Stephen Iverson)

And as I wandered the paths of the reserve, stopping to stand before trees that had lived in that place for more than 1400 years,  trees that had lived with the indigenous people and watched the change of power to those coming from European cultures, trees once threatened and now adored,  trees that had stood almost as long as the church that is the institution of our faith on this earth, the song grew inside me and raised in me that feeling of the mystery of all things that is, for me, the experience of the presence of my God.

That, my friends, I now know is the living power of the worship style known as Taize.  I have long known some of the music of Taize; I have read about the place and the ideas behind the worship.  I have never had the opportunity to worship in this method, twice daily, for an extended period of time.  And now I know that, just as I suspected, Taize uses the power of music as I have always believed it existed:

Singing is one of the most essential elements of worship. Short songs, repeated again and again, give it a meditative character. Using just a few words they express a basic reality of faith, quickly grasped by the mind. As the words are sung over many times, this reality gradually penetrates the whole being. Meditative singing thus becomes a way of listening to God. It allows everyone to take part in a time of prayer together and to remain together in attentive waiting on God, without having to fix the length of time too exactly.

To open the gates of trust in God, nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of “heaven’s joy on earth,” as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.

These songs also sustain personal prayer. Through them, little by little, our being finds an inner unity in God. They can continue in the silence of our hearts when we are at work, speaking with others or resting. In this way prayer and daily life are united. They allow us to keep on praying even when we are unaware of it, in the silence of our hearts (Taize Community).

Most of all, worship in the style of Taize provides me with something that I have been crying out for:  it allows (and requires) my participation; it protects and demands my agency as a member of the community.  Lately, much worship has seemed dogmatic to me, a series of so-called professionals “telling” me how to worship, what to worship, what to do — what I have come to call the “God through the eye-dropper” affect.  I have become increasing unable to tolerate such worship; it is not an experience of God for me.  It is certainly not the “work of the people,”  that to-the-point translation of the word liturgy from the language of its origins.

Taize is indeed the work of the people; without the people it does not exist.  And that morning, among the tall trees, the song became a prayer and became part of me and the forest and all that was.  I was changed at a fundamental level by the act of singing, not there, but in chapel.   The song had, for me, become not a song but a practice, an experience of God.

Robert Wuthnow, in his book about religion in the United States from 1950 to the present (After Heaven), gives me clear language for this change that I have been going through, the change that came to life and became my own in the redwood forest.  He defines three models for American spirituality:  the spirituality of dwelling, which is all about habitation and is placed-dependent and leads to the idea that the community is all-important and provides the answer  to all questions of faith, serving up to its members a curated experience of God; the spirituality of seeking, which led to the expansion of the evangelical and Pentecostal movements as well as any other movement that encourages the individual to seek their own way to God without the aid of others; and finally, the spirituality of practice,  which combines many of the ways to God experienced by those who are seeking but combines it with a greater sense of discipline AND eliminates the idea that alone, in our room, without others, is the best way to encounter God.  In a spirituality of practice, the agency of the individual is retained; the importance of the individual experience of God is emphasized; and the simple fact that, as suggested in Matthew 18:20, we cannot experience any of this without the presence of others, is fundamental.

Taize is just such a practice. Spiritual direction is just such a practice.  For me, music is such a practice.  Study is such a practice.  Walking among the trees became such a practice on this trip.  I think, that in my life, it might be time to change that old musician’s joke about Carnegie Hall.  How about:

Q:  How does one experience the presence of God?

A:   Practice, practice, practice.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  Practice requires participation and at the same time it acknowledges that the answers are within and  that those answers are best revealed in the presence of others.  That sounds like worship to me.  That, and a long walk among the worlds tallest trees.

Fog. Literal. Well, maybe….

It is Monday morning and as I walk to breakfast with my eyes firmly fixed on the dark-sky-slipping-toward-light ahead of me, I am thinking about fog.  I am, after all, in the Bay area and there is plenty of it.  I’m actively resisting pulling out my phone to try and capture what I see all around me, because I know it cannot be done.  What I see defies at least my current level of photographic talent — the subtle puffs of white, still clinging to the hill tops and valleys as the sun, painting its tell-tale deep pink stripes across the still grey-black sky in its attempt to chase those puffs away.

I spent much of Saturday morning driving through and walking through fog in the marshes of the San Pablo Bay Nature Reserve.  It was incredibly beautiful, but the fog made photography difficult.  You see, what I know now sinceIMG_3618 I’ve uploaded my shots is this:  even in those moments when I thought that the fog had cleared and gone, it was still there — just enough remaining to obscure my (and the camera’s) vision.  Many of the pictures were very different from the scenes I believed that I saw.

Metaphor?  Well, yes…but maybe one more subtle than I might have expected.  I thought I saw clearly, and yet a film (ever so slight) remained over the scene.  The camera could see it, but I could not.

For those of you wondering what I am doing here in San Francisco (technically, San Anselmo in Marin, County), I am here learning, well, to be the camera.  I have begun formal training in the practice of spiritual direction.  Basically, a spiritual director’s job is to (along with God, the real director) see that subtle film of fog over life and , like a harbor master with a boat captain, steer you through it towards…well, I would say towards God but you might have a different name for your destination.  And that’s okay.

Meeting the fog this weekend, I realized that fog, will, just is.  It really has not intention other than being fog.  It bears us no malice; it does not intentionally try to keep us from seeing.  It is just being, well, fog.  And when the light shines bright enough and warm enough, it will stop being fog and go on to its next form.  There is great beauty and peace in that process, which is so like our own.

So I will go out and walk among the fog again this morning, both that provided by the Pacific ocean and the rolling hills that surround me and that provided by my own spirit.  Maybe I’ll find a great camera along the way.

Onward…

Having spent most of my years as a communicator of some kind, words are important to me.  If you combine that life experience with a good ten years spent in a worship community in which the song that lead into prayer during worship went like this,

Our thoughts our prayers
And we are always praying
Our thoughts our prayers
Take charge of what you are saying
Seek a higher consciousness
A state of peacefulness
And know that God is always there.
And every thought becomes a prayer.

and you have, well me — someone who over and over again examines the use of words that many people assume have a well accepted and agreed upon common meaning.  For example, I understand that the word “family,” which we use so freely in our worship gatherings as a synonym for the kind of Christian community we hope to creation, does not mean the same thing to all people — it does not, to everyone mean that safe, desirable warm place that you either have and want to share or that, if you don’t have already, you desire more than anything else on earth.  For some it is a social unit that excludes, that hurts.  Family is a word with two very different meanings.

Another such word is the word calling.  You would think that, given my nature and my passions, I would find this word wonderful.  I have heard it used with the best of intentions and the greatest of faith, but haven’t we all heard it used in other ways?  And, I ask myself, even if your intention is good and clear when you use it, does the word not imply that you have something that the person sitting next to you does not — that you are somehow special and maybe even a little “better-than”?  Has this word and its professionalization not led us to some of the deep problems in our gatherings, where those with “the degree” and “the calling” are seen as better, more spiritual, even more holy than those without?  I don’t have answers for these questions but they are things that I continue to ponder.  And they are questions that have made it impossible for me to use the word “calling” without trepidation.

Yesterday, however, my friend Adrienne gave me new language that seems to fit the journey that I am beginning today.  Generally, I would not mention a person by name without their permission, but she did use this language on Facebook and she deserves credit.  Even if it is not original, she is the one who placed it in front of me as I’m about to step off on another part of my journey. journey Adrienne referred to her own path as following “that ministry which God has laid upon my heart.”  I follow Adrienne carefully because, she, like me, is following a path that is way outside the box of church life in 2015.  Her journey gives me strength and now, for a while, language that I can live with along the way.

You see, today I am flying off to San Francisco to begin a certification process in the ministry of listening.  Listening is the critical piece needed to help our understanding of the way in which words impact people’s lives — their words and ours.  It is, to me, the path to greater peace and faith.  And it is part of the infrastructure that I need to, like Adrienne,  follow the path of ministry that God has placed on my heart.  Maybe I will make it and maybe I won’t, but this is the next step on the this path.

During this last year of recovery and struggle and finding my way, I asked for one simple thing — that a feeling of possibility and movement might return to my life, that the ability to create and dream return.  A year ago, I would not have found comfort in a phrase that used the words “laid upon my heart,” but now I can.  You see, words can be rehabilitated in a life, too.

I am here to tell you that prayers are sometimes answered.  Who knows where this step will take me or what new language I will be asked to confront and dissect, but I do believe that my ability to hear many meanings to well accepted words will be of some help over these next weeks.

 

At the turning of the year…

Here we are.  New Year’s Eve (or soon to be, when the sun sinks from the sky), the year 2014 — a year that I will gratefully kiss on the cheek as it passes into the past.  If 2013 was the year of the unimaginable and unwanted, then 2014 will bear the label of the year of recovery and transition.  Only time (and the value of hindsight on next New Year’s eve) will reveal to us the defining characteristics of the year ahead.

This December 31st, though, I find myself as I often am…organizing, cleaning, cooking, and preparing…but more than anything, missing the many years when I was part of faith community that gathered on this night and prayed and sang our way through the turning of the year.  There were the burning bowl ceremonies and the occasional full-scale musical review (many of us who have watch_night_svcgone on to even marginal performing careers are mightily grateful that YouTube did NOT exist the year we wrote and presented that unknown New Year’s Eve classic, “It’s About Time”), and always, always the letters to God, carefully and thoughtfully written then filed away by the office staff and mailed to each of us in July as a kind of “God check-in”.

I find myself so in a place of yearning for a faith gathering on this night that, if it were not for the laryngitis which at the moment keeps me silent and at home (please, yes, I know the irony of me, silent, on any night but especially this one), I would be driving to Annapolis to participate in UMC Eastport’s New Year’s Eve Interfaith Service or hopping in the car to join the Watch Night gathering at the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria.  Watch Night services find their root in the practice of John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, who offered what he called “covenant renewal services” on New Year’s eve; the watch night service became an important statement of freedom in the African-American church after the Civil War.  Chances are I will not be able to do either this year, but I am making a promise to myself — next year, at the turning of the year, this will be different.

So, instead, I offer you all these words which I will be sharing with those close to me tonight (silently, but sharing nonetheless).  May beautiful words, crafted by Rev. Nancy C. Townley, give you reason to pause and reflect as we turn the page of another year and begin again to write a new tale on the page before us.

Lord of the opening way, we bring to you this night our past, with all that has happened in our lives, our hopes and our dreams, our successes and our failures, our gains and our losses.  We bring to you our present, lives filled with exhaustion, wonder, fear, concern.  We come to you with hearts open to receive your word for us, for the future.  We want to be a part of your new heaven and earth, to serve you by serving others.  Speak to us, heal us, teach us, lead us, for we ask these things in Jesus’ Name.  AMEN.

And, if you are so guided, maybe as midnight approaches, you will join me in this prayer of confession, because if we tell the truth, we all have much to confess each and every day:

Lord, you have asked us to feed and give drink to those who hunger, to clothe those who are naked, to welcome the stranger, to visit those who are sick and imprisoned.  When we look back on this year we might be able to say we did some of these things.  We remember the enthusiasm with which we started out this waning year, ready to do your work and witness to your love.  But you  know how things got in our way.  We allowed ourselves to be swallowed up by worries and fear.  We placed comfort of self before service to others.  We took the “easy way out” whenever we could.  And you wept for us.  Now we are on the brink of the new year.  We cannot change what we did not do, but we can make a covenant with you to be your witnesses in our words, thoughts and deeds to your people so that when you say, “Have you given food and drink to those you hunger and thirst, have you clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, visited the sick and imprisoned?”  We can respond with a joyful “Yes! Lord, we have done these things with joy and love!”  Forgive us what we have not done.  Inspire us to do what you would have us do.  In Jesus’ Name, we pray.  Amen.

Last, but not least, I invite you to sit for a while with the prayer that John Wesley wrote for this night, for this time of turning, for this time of renewal:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

We can ask no more of ourselves, we can ask no more of God.  May each of you have a wonderful New Year’s eve and may the year turn well for you and yours.

The Days Between

Just before Christmas Day , I was lucky enough to enjoy the evening at President Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, and to be there for the first (probably to become annual) Christmas Grand Illuminations.  It was a great deal of fun, overcrowded as most such events are in the Washington area, but the evening was just cold enough to feel of the season but not so cold as to be painful (particularly thanks to my newly acquired long underwear, purchased for our trip to Colorado).  The evening was festive, the fireworks spectacular.

The most interesting portion of the program, however, was the welcome offered by George and Martha…well, not really George and Martha, but a couple of actors doing a very fine representation of George and Martha.  George talked about his memories of Christmas as a boy and while leading his forces against the British.  Martha, on the other hand, quietly reminded us all to remember the real meaning of the season.  She described in detail her Christmases along the plantations and farms of the Potomac.  She joyfully painted a picture of the then common and now almost lost practice of the true twelve days of Christmas:  the long church services of the 24th and the 25th, followed by visiting and feasting for twelve days, ending with the largest celebration and gifts on January 6.  Today, we reverse that process and many, even those involved in a community of faith, will consider Christmas over and done with on the 25th when the meal is over and the paper remaining from the gifts is cleared away.  Oh yes, many of us of in all kinds of denominations, both liturgical and free-will, have once again adopted the practice of Advent, with its longing and hope and waiting for the darkness to be fulfilled by the coming of the light.  And some carefully, if only with a sense of obligation, note the passing of the saints’ and feast days between, finally landing with a sigh of relief on the day of the Epiphany of our Lord?  But how many church communities still have a service on Christmas Day, let alone provide any kind of guidance or even acknowledgement that Christmas is more than a day?  How many churches took the easy way out and offered a service of lessons and carols on this First Sunday after Christmas, figuring that, if anyone was in attendance at all, the pews would be filled mostly with visitors and strangers so why bother with anything else?   Thus, programming  concedes to the consumerist nature of the season rather than standing against it by once again offering a worship that asks nothing of those in the pews.

And yet the Lectionary cycle reminds us that Christmas is a season, a season that represents a beginning of a greater season.  It is not an ending in itself.  The days that follow the glory and mystery of the Nativity story also invite us through Christmas to the Epiphany of our Lord and onward, towards Ash Wednesday and the next great liturgical season of our faith.  We are, right now (as we the_magi_henry_siddons_mowbray_1915often find ourselves), living through the days between — the days between the birth and the resurrection, the days between the birth of our Lord and the birth of our church.  Martha Washington reminded me of this.

Martha’s reminder led me to the pages of Marcia Falk’s book The Days Between:  Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season (2014).  When Rabbi Falk refers to the “days between”, she is making reference to the days in the Jewish calendar that pass between Rosh Hashanah (literally, the “head of the year”), the celebration of New Year in which the community observes the “turning of the year (or t’shuvat hashanah)” and Yom Kippur (literally, the day of Atonement).  In the Jewish tradition, these days between are called the Aseret Y’mey T’shuvah (the Ten Days of Returning), a time of taking stock, a time of turning away from ordinary matters of the world, a time to reflect on where you have been during the last year and where you are going in the next.  Ten days spent meeting yourself face-to-face; ten days devoted to opening the heart to change.

What if we too, reclaimed these twelve days of Christmas, these days in-between, for this kind of “returning”?  Oh, some of us spend some time making New Year’s resolutions and cleaning our closets, but those are both traditions derived from our secular present and our pagan past.  What if we truly embraced the liminality of these twelve days –the days between the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the Magi and the first declaration that he was born the King of the Jews (even though this story appears only in one Gospel account, Matthew 2:1-12)? To do so, we must also embrace the “in-between” nature of these days and of all of life.  We live between between light and dark, dusk and dawn, birth and death, just as in the great story that is the liturgical year in the Christian church.

I know that I ask too much; that as a missional church in a hostile culture we will never find twelve days to devote to this kind of reflection.  But perhaps, a few of us on our own, can find some small remembrance that the season has just begun for us, that there is much to ponder.  And perhaps, for just a few moments each day, we might meet ourselves and perhaps our God, face-to-face.

That toddlin’ town…

That is the song I always hear when I arrive in Chicago…the old one, not anything new and trendy.  But that seems fitting since my ties to this great city are long and deep and unrequited, ties that need to be revisited from time to time for reasons that are unclear to most who know me.

What is it about Chicago?  Well, many years ago, years before I began to travel the world with frequency and ease, I packed a few belongings and a friend into a car and drove here to see the Tutankhamen exhibition at the vast Field Museum of Natural History.  I had never seen  a city bigger than Kansas City;  I had never seen a large museum nor a large body of water.  And I had certainly never driven in a big city (I was 19 years old at the time).  I had never had wine with my dinner in a fancy restaurant.  And I had only read about the Ancient Egyptian artifacts that fascinated me so.

Then there was the brief period that I lived in South Bend, IN.  Even coming from Kansas City, South Bend seemed stultifyingly small and provincial.  To seek diversity and animation (as the French would say — the animation part, not the diversity part), we used to pack ourselves into that same care and drive to Chicago on Saturdays.  We would visit the museums, we would go to amazing concerts and shows and we would wander the ethnic neighborhoods like Devon Street, sampling delicacies that were, for us, new discoveries and delights.

I spent many years of my early education planning to study here.  As I moved from the basic study of history to a deep interest in archaeology, I longed to study at the venerable University of Chicago Oriental Institute.  And I was accepted — but my visit to its hallowed halls so discouraged chicago christmasme about a future in archaeology (that and the lack of much scholarship money) caused me to change course in my life and focus on my library sciences skills.  I had no idea that, at that time, it was a decision that could not be reversed — that there would actually be a time when I was too old to pick up that interest again and pursue it seriously.

Even though I did not move here to study, Chicago simply did not exit my life for many years.  Moving from actually working in libraries to working for companies that provided automation for libraries, I found myself responsible for the technical upgrade at the amazing Chicago Public Library.  On a weekly basis, I travelled to the airport in Kansas City and boarded a plane for a day trip to Chicago.  Each day I arrived early in the morning, boarded the CTA and disembarked in front of the now Harold Washington Library only to retrace those steps at the end of the day.  In those years, there was no time to play or enjoy this great city.  If I was lucky there was time for lunch.

Then there were the years in which, well, sadly, Chicago was nothing but an airport where I occasionally changed planes.  Those were the years when New York held my attention — the audition and performing year.  New York, however, is no Chicago (and fans of New York would say the same in reverse).  Chicago and I, well, we took a time out.

A few years ago, one December when I felt the draw of the German Christmas markets and had not time in my schedule for an international trip, a friend suggested that I come to Chicago instead.  I was skeptical, but desperate for that feel of holiday cheer German style, so I tried it.   In my absence, Chicago continued to be what it has always been in my mind – a livable, vibrant, interesting, and international city with amazing experiences and trend-setting dining.  And it had continued to outpace many cities in our nation for fabulousness.  Or, maybe it is the combination of my past and my future that engages me here.  Anyway, I had a great time three years ago, catching up with museums long abandoned and adding a few new experiences to my list.

So I was not surprised when the draw to return took hold of my spirit in the last month.  There was some specific shopping I needed to do that could only be done at a real Christkindlmarkt.  There was something else, though.  I really had not approached a large city on my own since the surgery.  Yes, I went to New York, but that was safe and managed for me.  I needed that feel of walking the streets, figuring out the transit maps, getting myself here and there, and dealing with the cold and discomfort all on my own. And so, here I am.

On this trip, I have added new experiences to old…yesterday, I went to Oak Park and visited the Frank Lloyd House and Studio, particularly fascinating in light of my visit to Taliessen West last year.  And now I’m headed out to visit that very same Oriental Institute that drew me so many years ago.

By the time I get on the plane to head home to DC tonight, I will have blended some new with the old in that way that our lives continue to be a tapestry of experience and learning if we allow it, and for this experience, and for this wonderful city, I give thanks.  Thank you, Chicago, for letting me both remember and grow, yet again, like the eternal toddler that I seem to be.

Five years later…

It has been five years.  Five years since I put on that worn out white robe and climbed those creaky, ancient stairs to the baptismal at the Calvary Baptist Church (only pausing long enough along the way to share with the pastor that I was deathly afraid of water).  Five years ago, for the second time in my life, I was baptized.  This time it wasn’t a sprinkle of water, it was baptism by full immersion.  And it was well worth facing my desperate fear of water.baptism

I am, quite naturally, a person who remembers anniversaries, and so each year on this date I have stopped to consider my baptism.  I in fact think of my baptism often, because I keep the picture below near my bed so that I see it often.  And, I kept a copy of that picture in my hospital room so that it, along with a few other dear images, was the first thing that I would see when I woke from the anesthesia.  And while at the seminary, I had multiple opportunities to participate in services where we relied on the Book of Common Prayer to guide us as we remembered our baptism.  I came to appreciate the questions we were asked to ponder:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in your prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

It is such a wonderful, succinct list of our responsibilities as disciples, as believers, as followers.  Lately, however, I feel that there is a question that is missing from this list.   It is a question that is not asked in any baptism ritual that I have seen or experienced, but, in my understanding of a life of faith it is THE most important question, the one where most of us fail over and over and over again as disciples.  And that question is:

Are you willing to be changed, over and over again, by your faith and by the call that this faith exerts upon your life?

In his book Beyond the Edge:  Spiritual Transitions for Adventurous Souls (2013), Andrew D. Mayes alludes to this question in his compelling discussion of the baptism of Jesus.  You see, as Mayes points out, we forget that, at his baptism, Jesus not only enters the water, but he passes through it — he crosses the river.  Mayes sees baptism as a threshold experience, accompanied by bereavement of things lost and the dual feeling of exhilaration and fear at the creation of something new and unknown.  For Mayes, the peaceful scene of a beatific Jesus receiving the holy Spirit bears no resemblance to the probable truth.  Jesus journeyed far, from the peaceful land of Galilee, to the harsh land of the desert, the very edge of the sacred land of the Hebrew Bible.  Jesus went to the very place in Joshua 3, the place where the Jordan River became the barrier that the people of Israel underwent that fundamental transition from a people wandering in the wilderness to a completely new phase of their existence.  The Jordan, unlike the Galilee, was a fundamental place of hard transition for Israel.  And in Jesus’ day, the Jordan was not the little trickle that it is now when we in the 21st century visit its shores:  it was a ferocious river, with swirling, threatening waters.  And on the other side of those waters, Jesus faced total and irrevocable change to his life:  a change in vocation (he had, up until now, worked as a tradesman with his father), that sense of bereavement and dislocation that comes with change and with the loss of all that he knew (family, friends, community — possibly everything about his life as he knew it).

I understand this now.  While I did understand my choice to be baptized again in 2009, I could not have foreseen the road out of the baptismal waters.  I could not have understood the letting go, the loss of identity and confidence, the incredible vulnerability that living into this life of change and transformation has meant to my journey on this planet.  I did not at all understand the pain involved in the process of forging this new identity, the new way of living demanded by this threshold experience.

And, five years later, I do not regret the choice or the commitment.  Not in any way.  Not for a single second.

Mayes says it best:

Baptism is not a one-off event in the lives of Christians, rather it sets the pattern for the whole of the Christian life.  We pass through the baptismal waters as the first crossing of our Jordan but we are called to be a pilgrim people through all of life. …all through the year God is calling us to step into the swirling waters, to wade into the deep, to drown our small ideas, let go of certain dreams or sins, to submerge our narrowed hopes or worn-out practices and to hear again the call of Christ.  We emerge, dripping like Jesus, to face a new future.  We are a baptismal people, a river people, who know the Jordan in our daily experience.  We are a people ready to make transitions, in the ways we pray, (in the ways we live), and in the ways we serve (LOC 295-303, Kindle Edition).

Just as on that day five years ago, I stand here, before my God, wet, and dripping, and ready to change.  The difference?  Today I know that change, above all, is what is demanded of me by my baptismal declaration.

 

 

 

 

Wait, it is already Advent?

Yes, I admit it.  I am behind.  Travelling will do that to me.  The end of the semester will do that to me.  Preparing for a concert where I am singing something totally new (like I am next week) pushes all sense of time and season out of the way.  Today, however, I decided to face the truth — Advent has begun without me.

And so, while I am busy getting my act together, I convinced myself that one good Advent devotional activity would be to go back and read some of the things that I myself wrote in years past during this season.  I hope you will not mind that I am recycling a thought or two while I get my Advent juices flowing, but this piece — written for Day 4 of Advent in 2013 — is still surprising fresh for me.  I hope that it will be for you too…

Knowing it in Your Bones (originally posted December 4, 2013)

If you described my religious identity as a child as, well, confused, you would be generous.  Raised and confirmed Presbyterian, reading the Daily Word from Unity School of Religious Science every morning with my vitamins as I left to school, attending Sunday school at the United Church of Christ, going to Youth Group with my friends at the United Methodist church.  And in the quiet hours of Advent, alone in my room, building what I thought looked like a reasonable approximation of a Catholic altar — putting a nativity on one side of the dresser and a lit Christmas tree on the other (before you liturgical purists get all up in arms, I was EIGHT YEARS OLD)–and spending long hours in the middle of the night praying on my knees before that altar.

Is it any wonder that as an adult I became a Baptist? And in particular, a Baptist pursuing a seminary education at an Episcopal seminary?  I clearly need to embrace the ideas of the priesthood of believers and individual soul autonomy that would allow all these eclectic things to exist in my faith simultaneously.

Reading today’s passage for 4th day of Advent (again, I’m taking my readings from the wonderful, printable Advent calendar at by Merry Watters and Thomas Mousin), for some reason, makes me think of those nights in my room, talking to God and the Christmas tree in ways that only a child can:

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.

I have a distinct memory of kneeling before my Advent altar and singing quietly the words of Silent Night (most likely in the original German; yes, even then), but we rarely think of Advent as the time to “make a joyful noise”.  Advent is the mournful, monkish sound of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, isn’t it?  And we only dare lift our voices in the praising chords and melodies of Handel’s Messiah outside the worship service at one of the popular Messiah sing-alongs that populate the holiday calendars in cities small and large throughout the English-speaking world.

So why read Psalm 100 during Advent?   There are some clues in the Psalm itself, if you will excuse me while I go all form critical on you.  Those of us worshiping according to the Revised Common Lectionarywill generally hear Psalm 100 in service after Pentecost and on Christ the King Sunday in November of Year A. This Psalm is the first of the enthronement Psalms, or Psalms that celebrate God’s lordship over all creation.  It can also be described as a hymn of praise, which is a particular literary form found in the the book of Psalms.  Here is the really interesting thing to me about the makeajoyfulnoisetext–it is made up of string of seven imperative verbs in the original Hebrew.  We are commanded to “make a joyful noise,” ” worship,” “come,” “know,” “enter,” “give thanks,” and “bless”.  And if that isn’t interesting enough, the word we translate as “know”, well, it just doesn’t mean what we think it means today.

The word know” in the original Hebrew is the word yada.  Knowing was not an intellectual activity when this text was written;  it was a lot closer to what we mean when we say someone “knows it in their very bones.”  If you take a minute and look at the use of yada translated as “knowledge”  in Hosea 4:1 and 4:6, you will see that to know in this sense means to act; there is no space between word and deed.  All the other verbs in this song of praise are actions, real physical actions if taken in context of worship in the Temple.  And likewise, yada here means a kind of knowing bound to action, a kind of knowledge that is fully internalized.  Knowing it in our bones.

So again I ask…why read Psalm 100 during Advent?  Are we missing something when we see Advent as a “quiet time”, because the world around us certainly does not agree.  Are we called to a “different kind” of Advent, not an Advent of prayerful waiting but an Advent where we step out in the action of faith, where we step out in the knowledge that this is time of remembrance of what has already come if we will but embrace it.  Should we be singing Joy to the World from the very first day?

I think that in a life of faith, there comes a time when the waiting is over and be-ing must take over. Maybe that is the true meaning of Advent in a post-modern world. Maybe this is a time to arm yourself with the very spirit of action offered by the Psalmist:  make a joyful noise, worship, come, enter, give thanks, bless, and know in your very bones that the Lord ALONE is God.

 

Thanksgivings for One and All

This is the day when many of us pause to remember the blessings in our lives.  It is a day when some find that remembrance impossible, because of fear or grief or illness.  It is therefore incumbent upon those of us who feel bathed in blessing most days of our lives to stop and remember for them, to remember for those who cannot see God’s love around them through the tears.

For all my friends, and for all of those in the world who need it this day, I share this prayer from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: IMG_3159A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals:

Lord, just as your love knows no bounds and finds endless ways to reveal itself, so help us to express a gratitude too deep for words.  Help us to learn to reveal our thanksgiving in the countless ways there are to love others, to provide for those in need, to serve where service is rare.

May the peace of the Lord go with you; wherever he may send you;
May God guide you through the wilderness:  protect you from the storm;
May God bring you home rejoicing
At the wonders you have seen;
May God bring you home rejoicing,
Once again into our doors.  Amen.

And, in the words of the Psalmist:

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good
for his steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 136:1).

No matter where you find yourself on this Thanksgiving day, dancing with the joy of Thanksgiving or weeping tears of despair and hopelessness, remember that you are not, you are never, ever alone.  And for this truth, I give thanks.

 

The Storm is Passing Over, Pt. 3: The Letting Go in the Moving On

I am sitting here in a warm, comfortable condo in Telluride, Colorado, watching the snow fall for the second day in a row.  Out my window, I can see birch trees and clean white powder, chair lifts drifting upwards to freshly groomed mountain ski trails, and the sun as it begins to peak through the snow flakes in this destination resort that claims 300 + days of sunshine each year.  In this week when the people of our nation turn their hearts and minds to the idea of thanksgiving, I am sitting here feeling the deepest of thanks as I embrace the beauty of nature all around me, a brief moment of piece in a world with so much strife.

It is a strange experience.  I am not exactly known as a great outdoorswoman nor am I known for my love of snow or cold. And in truth, I find myself sitting here through the kind of random fate that results when you are looking for a new experience.  But there is a peace and a beauty totelluride sunset this harsh climate that I have never experienced anywhere else in  all my travels.  It is a kind of quiet and beauty that forces you to be quiet yourself.  Perhaps this place helps me experience what Belden C. Lane is talking about in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:  Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (2007), when he says that:

…the experience of threatening wilderness invites us to the unexplored landscapes of an inner geography where that which is most deeply ‘us’ is joined to what we experience as radically Other.  In hostile landscapes of desert, mountain, and thundering clouds we are brought forcibly to the boundaries of what we our minds and bodies are able to sustain (pg. 101).

As I continue to recover from the events of the last couple of years, I seem to desperately seek this kind of experience with nature, over and over again.   There is so much that continues to change.  This Thanksgiving week is so very different from that of last year and so much has passed that has been too difficult to share.  But here, in this amazing experience of God’s creation, I think I will try.

You see, this fall, September 19 specifically, was the one year anniversary of my valve replacement surgery. That day we celebrated by facing extreme nature tool, not nature as dangerous as the desert or as challenging as the mountains that now surround me, but extreme by my standards — we  marched up the trail at Sugarloaf Mountain as a kind of proof of life– there I was, physically healed, graduated from seminary and singing again, biking 8-10 miles a day, leaping tall buildings with a single bound (well, not really), just one year later.  And on that day, I began to understand the true meaning of recovery.  Before the surgery, I thought that the moment of great change in my life  was the moment of diagnosis (and that is true), but now I know that everything really changes forever when you realize that you are alive, after the diagnosis, after the surgery, after the release from care, and after you start to connect fully with your incarnated self once again.Recovery is all about letting go so that you can live again.

No one tells you that the act of recovery is more an act of letting go than of getting back — you must experience that reality to understand it.  No one can tell you all the ways you will change, all the ways that you will have no choice but to change.  In my case, because I was so lucky, the biggest task was not the process of physical healing.  The biggest task has been and continues to be developing a new understanding of just how to live my life here and now, in this new experience of what we call reality.  I am so grateful, for the love and support that came my way along this journey, for the friendships that deepened and the new ones that were made. I am sad, too, for the relationships lost, for the ways of living that cannot stand up to this new reality —  because much was lost during this year, much that can never be embraced or recovered again, much that I would not have chosen to lose.

For these last months since the flurry of activity that led up to my graduation from the Virginia Theological Seminary, I  have concentrated on the work and discernment needed to let my mind and my spirit catch up to my body in the healing process.  I’ve been doing something that I now know is called “sorting”…a common way of coping with trauma and its aftermath.  And now that I recognize that process, I realize that I have done it at least once before — during the three years after my divorce, when I spent every moment  (that I was not at my job) sitting in a darkened room, evaluating each and every thing in my life and each and every thing that I believed.  I was busy at that time trying to find some hint of my own voice, and so the questions I asked went like this:  is this (belief, thing, person) part of my intentional living or is it something imposed upon me; is this something that should be abandoned because it blocks me from my higher good.    That is the kind of  language I would have I used in those days.

And the questions for my recent sorting exercise?  Lately, I have been asking:  what blocks me from living into my call and what supports me in that way of living?  Where is my sense of my calling thwarted and unsupported and where do I feel that is is cherished and welcome? Where has my sense of that call been so altered by my incarnational experience that I must release it and allow something new to enter into my living?  My conclusion — life is far too short to continue to try and fit my square peg self into a round hole.

You see, one of the problems with a year like the last one and in particular with moments like I experienced in this last year and a half is this:  if you are paying attention, if you are really living those precious moments instead of living the fear, you may experience something amazing — you may, for even the briefest moment, experience what I have come to call the wholeness of our being.  And I did.  The fleeting seconds between when I said goodbye to the ones I held most dear and when my conscious mind succumbed to the power of the sedatives that would protect me through the violence of surgery, I sat in the presence of God. For just a precious instant, I was whole and complete.  I truly lived the intent of the Psalmist in Psalm 37:7, “Rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him,” a line I have sung time and time again in the famous alto aria from Mendelssohn’s Elijah.   It is one thing to sing the words; it is another to experience them.

Being human, however, the awareness of that beauty is only for an instant. And then, you wake up.  You wake up to a world of tubes and nurses and luckily, not really caring about anything except that you woke up.  And so begins the long journey toward healing.  I was so lucky…in so many ways, my recovery was an easy one.  I had one small setback, but a very small one.  I had little pain.  I had wonderful visitors to distract me.  I had a loving and safe home in which to heal.  As the physical healing progresses, however, the memory of that moment and that wholeness simultaneously grows and recedes…the day to day of life begins to take over once again but the shadow of the mystery remains, telling you each and every day that things can never again be as they were.  I have only just begun to understand  how I have been fundamentally changed by the experience — not just the surgery, but that brief moment in time, that connection to the ultimate mystery…

And so I find myself, once again, in the mountains, in search of an apophatic experience, that experience of God that comes in the moment of true emptiness, when there is nothing to touch but God –just like that moment when you place yourself in God’s hands manifested through those of your surgeon and his team.  As Lane puts it so eloquently:

This I what all of the apophatic writers want to accomplish in their varying ways of employing the imagery of Sinai.  They point the climber to a peak that demands abandoning all the intellectual baggage possible.  The mountain’s ascent requires the letting go of every pride of mastery, every naïve confidence in what might once have been known.  It is finally not stamina or expertise that drives the pilgrim up the mountain, but a profound, inexpressible desire for that which cannot be named (pg. 108).

We move on, up the mountain; but to move on, we must let go.  The letting go in the moving on is painful, but very necessary.  And, I am convinced that it is indeed what God wants here, that that is the true meaning of recovery.  I believe this  because I was allowed to experience the mystery of it all.  The great gift and the great challenge of this time is not just that the outward things of my life have changed and continue to change, but that the difference comes from a deep understanding of life that is completely altered.  Finally, I have some understanding of the words of that great letter writer, Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians:  “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (4:16-18).”