Who are you, Anyway: Our chaotic, blessed stories…

I had the opportunity to attend a luncheon in support of the work at Jubilee Housing last Tuesday and to learn about their amazing work providing affordable housing and social support to people of all ages and stages in the District of Columbia.  A couple of very dear friends invited me; I had the chance to catch up with other friends while I was there, learning about an organization that walks the walk of its social justice beliefs.

The program showcased the lives and stories of some of the residents at Jubilee properties; they told the story of how a safe, stable, affordable home (something what-is-your-storyvery expensive to attain in DC) had changed their lives and made it possible for them to give back to others.  And in their telling, they invited us into their experience, into their story — so that those of us in the audience lucky enough to not actually share their experience might, for a moment, walk in their shoes and understand the importance of the work of creating and supporting affordable housing.

I could not help but think about this last year and more of my life, focused on storytelling and listening in so many ways.  As I go forth on this path that as yet has no name, I am often asked just what it is that I am about.  The luncheon last Tuesday was a good example — I am about helping people tell their stories and maybe, just maybe, seeing a little bit of God in that story: our chaotic, blessed stories, made in God’s image, clothed in the struggle that is our own incarnation.

I still struggle with my elevator speech for this new life,  but I know that life when I see it in action.  So, for right now, I continue to offer another’s words to describe this path.  So, to close, I offer you this poem that says so much about this calling that swirls about me and continues to lead me down so many interesting forest paths:

It is our stories
our sacred, chaotic, blessed stories:
it is our stories
that are the stones
of God’s language
on the rocky, jagged, radiant
path of life.
It is the holy listener who helps arrange these stones
into cairns
which point the way to God’s desire for our lives
God’s desire for our every moment.
The cairns, if patiently balanced,
uneven though they be,
if patiently balanced,
can point the way to heaven.
Heaven, after all,
is making God-serving meaning of our stories
on this rocky, jagged, radiant path of life.

(Jennifer Hoffman, reprinted in Janet K. Ruffing’s
To Tell the Sacred Tale, 2009)

Who are you, anyway? The beginning of a thought…

Lately, my thoughts are consumed with the idea of identity.  Perhaps it is a mid-life crisis brought on by my recent birthday; perhaps it is simply that I sit at one of those crossroads in life where my choices would be best served by a good solid dose of self-knowledge.  Or, maybe it is the season — this season of holy reflection that was the time when I decided to take yet another ecumenical change of dance steps and become a member of a Baptist community.  Whatever the reason for the feeling, the feeling is palpable and will not be denied — it is time to seriously ponder the idea of identity, personal and corporate.

Of course, I am beginning my quest with a book.  I am just beginning the book Rethinking Christian Identity:  Doctrine and Discipleship (2012) by Medi Ann Volpe and my framework for this discussion has already exploded.  She groups her discussion for the Christian in three categories — that of self-identity, community identity, and the group of identifiable beliefs and practices that are called Christian.  This is a schema that pretty much covers what I want to talk about as well.  And so, over the next few weeks, I hope you will join me as I walk through my own process of thinking about my identity as a member of the body of Christ.

To get us started, however, I wanted to revisit something that I wrote during Advent of 2013.  Yes,  I know it is Lent, not Advent, and that the Passion week beckons us onward in our journey.  And yet, there is no more important time to stop and ponder our identity as disciples.  This is the time in the story when disciples were made — it was one thing to follow a living, teaching, visible Jesus; now those who physically walked beside Him would be called to a very different identity, an identity as believers, as teachers themselves, as the faithful who carried on a work without his physical presence.

So, to begin, I offer this small reflection on John 1:19-23 from December 2013:

One evening in Church History class the lecture began with this question:  who are you?  It was a good opening; it made me start, it made me pay attention.  It was not the words I expected in that place at that time.  And it was a great question with which to frame the discussion of the early whoareyou2Christian persecutions that followed.  I did not at that time realize the ways in which that question would echo forward through my life.   I certainly did not then nor do I now have as clear an answer as our Gospel reports that John the Baptist offered when asked the same question:

John 1:19-23

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’

He said,
‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,
as the prophet Isaiah said.

I come from the generation that identified and labelled the terms “identity crisis” and “midlife crisis”, both psychological terms for the kind of inquisitive searching started with the simple question “Who are you?”  But John knew who he was…he was there to be the voice of the prophet from Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1, and Psalm 68:4.

If I were to go back to the beginning of this devotional process to state my theme for the writing of these days, I would change my theme to “living as disciples,” because that is where each text so far has taken me.  Maybe it is in the text, maybe it is just in me; but again in our reading I hear a call to stop waiting and to acknowledge that I, like John, have life and breath because I am “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”   It is the great answer to the question of a generation, “Who am I?”


What I’ve Learned so Far…Learning is Fundamental

I am sitting here at my desk on a frigid bright morning, missing a class on Genesis 22 because of car fires and accidents on the highway that takes me out to the seminary.  My brain and my soul are still full from last night’s discussion of the Holiness Code and its role in the land promises of the Pentateuch.  And, if I haven’t lost you already in the face of this biblical techno-speak, I would point out to you what might not be obvious — I GRADUATED IN MAY.  WHY AM I TAKING TWO BIBLICAL STUDIES CLASSES?

Because, my friends, over the past months, I have understood some important things about myself and  what it means for me to live as a disciple.  Most importantly, I have learned that the quirk in my personality that I thought was an inability to launch was, in fact, the call to practice what is for me the most important of all spiritual disciplines, my most cherished path to a deeper relationship with my God, that of study and learning.

When I began my series called “What I’ve Learned so Far…”, I thought of the title as a way to shine a light on the particular gleanings I gathered during my 2012-09-19_14-07-56_978seminary study experience.  I thought that was important since those experiences came as I blended two (well, more than two really) traditions: I was following a learning path that was primarily designed for the formation of those in the Episcopal church when I was, well, certainly not a practicing Episcopalian.  Not much time needed to pass after graduation for me to understand that the seminary experience can (and in my case did), stoke the fire of a life long quest for learning.  I realized that at seminary I had truly discovered, well, my people — the questioning.

Richard Forster’s description of study as a spiritual discipline has finally come to life for me in my own spiritual journey:

Many Christians remain in bondage to fears and anxieties simply because they do not avail themselves of the Discipline of study. They may be faithful in church attendance and earnest in fulfilling their religious duties, and still they are not changed. I am not here speaking only of those who are going through mere religious forms, but of those who are genuinely seeking to worship and obey Jesus Christ as Lord and Master. They may sing with gusto, pray in the Spirit, live as obediently as they know, even receive divine visions and revelations, and yet the tenor of their lives remains unchanged. Why? Because they have never taken up one of the central ways God uses to change us: study.

Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Kindle Edition (San Francisco: Harper Collins Inc., 2009) 62-63.

You see,  I do not study out of a sense of vocation in any way that this word vocation is understood in my cultural context.  I do not study to get a better job or a certain job.  I do not study to objectify or to control or even really to understand. My call to study comes out of the very mystery that is God — through study and learning, I walk more closely with God, I love more deeply, I experience love more clearly.   I hear God’s voice through hours spent learning to read the Hebrew Bible in its original language;  I learn of God’s love through source criticism and literary analysis and inter-textual study of the sacred books. At this time in my life, the classroom and the fellowship of others in this kind of study is the most sacred place on earth for me, more sacred than any cathedral or church sanctuary. And at last I understand that, for me, there is no separation between my intellect and my heart; those walls have come a tumblin’ down, as the song says.

Even ten years ago, I would have interpreted this kind of call to discipline as a sign that I should redouble my efforts, get the PhD.D., make the sacrifices, fight the age and sex discrimination present in the academic community and go for a life in academia.  The call is strong, right?  That is the way I experience God, right?  I must be meant to follow this path as my way of living, surely?

Well, yes and know.  Part of my post-seminary learning is this:  God’s call to know you, God’s call to embrace you, frankly, has not one thing to do with the structures of this human world.  That invitation has nothing to do with making a living in this world; there is no worldly career advice embedded in it.  It has nothing to do with success or fame or even acceptance and belonging.  And it has no relationship to the institutions we have created, even (or perhaps especially) those created in His name.

So if you wonder where I am, I am probably in the corner with my nose stuck in a commentary, puzzling over the role of the ancestors in the Genesis narrative.  Or maybe I’m sitting in a classroom or a library somewhere, following some tantalizing crooked finger of God that is leading me on to some new piece of understanding.  One of the great learnings I have received is that thinking about your faith as a scholar and living into your faith as would a mystic are not mutually exclusive — that, friends, is my life.  And for that lesson, Virginia Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary, I will give thanks to the end of my days.



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.


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.