Thistles, tea and transformation….healing as a practice

Some days, you just need a reminder that there are people in this world who follow God’s breadcrumbs against all the odds and do the work needed to transform their little corner into a living expression of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world.  Last night I had the chance to listen to just such a person, the Rev. Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene House, a residential program that “stands in solidarity with”  women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, and drug addiction as they come in from the streets and changes their lives.   And next, out of a need to support these women and this work, and to teach the skills needed for life on their own, Thistle Farms was born, born out of the idea of  that  the sacrament of blessing (the age old rite of anointing with oil) becomes a lived reality when you embrace the true meaning of these words:

#LoveHeals

That’s right…that’s all there is to it.  The best, the strongest and the most meaningful teaching, I think, always comes with the fewest words and last night’s event was full of those kind of words.  Love heals, the ultimate lesson of our faith. We saw the fruits of that healing love in the stories of the women who came with Rev. Stevens, in the pictures of the women from Rwanda who make essential oils as a way to heal themselves and their world after the experience of the Rwandan genocide, in the pictures of people coming together over coffee and tea at the Thistle Stop Cafe, raising up the lives of others as they eat and drink together.

And then, there were these words, which I think might have been meant just for me:

Healing is a practice

Okay, I know that they were not meant just for me, but we all feel that way sometimes, don’t we?  The words in the sermon that seem to write themselves in flame across our hearts, the words of a song that ring over and over in again in our soul? Well, last night, those fire-filled words aimed at my soul were these: Healing is a practice.  Not a process, not a destination, not a gift, not a thing to be bestowed upon us — but a practice.

Practice, to me, not only suggests something that is ongoing, but something that is completely participatory.   Either you are all in or not, and if not, then it simply is not a practice.  And another important distinction between something that is a process and something else that is a practice?  That it is ongoing, never ending, always incomplete, always becoming.  I very much like the idea of putting the idea of healing in that framework; that construct bathes the idea of healing in a beautiful light of hope that is simply not present if you think that “being healed’ is a destination to be reached.

Most of all, a practice, particularly a practice like healing, is a sign of hope.  The day may be dark, the road unsure, but if you continue your practice it means that you still have hope.  And for women who have survived abuse and abandonment, who daily face exclusion because of criminal records and economic disparity, the idea that they can imagine the possibility of a future for themselves is the most amazing healing of all.  And a healing that must be embraced and nurtured each and every day that they draw draw a breath of life.

We all know brokenness of some type, because, well, we are human.  These women, however, taught me the greatest healing lesson of all, though — that our thistleown experience of that healing practice must be shared, shared with the woman (or man, or child) who still has not taken that first step.  As Rev. Stevens writes in her recent book The Way of Tea and Justice:  Rescuing the World’s Favorite Beverage from Its Violent History (2014), for those of us who have been helped, “Now it’s (healing) is about taking the stories of brokenness and weaving them together to form a tapestry of hope for others (pg. 6).”

Nothing explains this idea of healing better than the story of Shana, who works in sales and was with us yesterday evening.  Shana’s story was powerful, but it was her sales pitch for the beautiful scented candle that brought me to tears.  Buy this candle, she said.  Buy it and do as I do with it.  Every morning, I light this candle.  I light it so that the woman out there, the woman who now lives this same story, can come in from the streets, like I did.

Yes, of course.  I bought a candle.  And yes, I lit it this morning. I lit that candle for all those in this world in need of a healing practice in their lives.   And I will light it again tomorrow, and tomorrow after that.

I will never again think of a thistle as a weed. Magdelene House and Thistle Farms, healing the world, one woman at a time.  I needed inspiration and yes, I received it.  Let the healing continue…

 

Love, imperfectly known…

I have been thinking a lot lately about the words of the General Confession used in Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer. I know, strange words for someone who insists that she continues to identify as with the Baptist distinctives as a format building block of her faith.  But, despite the fact that Episcopalians everywhere often begin each morning with these words (as they are the opening corporate prayer of the Morning Prayer discipline), these are words (and sentiments) which belong to the whole Body of Christ.

Let’s read together these words of confession, and then I’ll share what I’ve been thinking:

Most merciful God, 
we confess that we have sinned against you 
in thought, word, and deed, 
by what we have done, 
and by what we have left undone. 
We have not loved you with our whole heart; 
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. 
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. 
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, 
have mercy on us and forgive us; 
that we may delight in your will, 
and walk in your ways, 
to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Always, always when I read this prayer, the line that sticks in my heart (and a bit in my throat as well) is the greatest sin:  “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

I will admit that I feel the pang of sin most strongly on the statement of the first failure, because I always believe that I could learn to love God more fully.  I could learn to open my heart to that mystical presence, I could be more accepting of what I cannot understand, I could merge more completely with the divine, I could be less distracted by the shiny world around me.  And while I feel a slight twinge of my failing as I read the second phrase, “…we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves,” and while I might spend a moment rehearsing the broken relationships in my life that need healing or the stranger whom I did not adequately welcome or the person in need I failed to help adequately, I somehow am more forgiving of my own failing.  Somehow, in the face of this statement of confession, I expect myself to fail and I am therefore, well, not as concerned when I do.

Yesterday, however, I had a new thought.  What if the real sin here is this:  that we do indeed love our neighbors as ourselves and what we manifest all around us is our own inability to offer God’s love to understand and embody God’s love for our own person?  What if the state of our quotes-about-love_2613-0relationships and of the world around us is not a statement of our failure to love our neighbors as we would love ourselves, but a statement of our total inability to understand the enormity of the love that God offers to us and to all the world.

We cannot love ourselves as God loves us, we therefore cannot love others with something we do not understand.  Brother Emmanuel of Taizé refers to this human foible as “love, imperfectly known.”  In fact that is the title of his book that I began to read after I had the opportunity to meet him and worship with him recently at the Virginia Theological Seminary.  The result of our inability to know God’s love for ourselves is, for Brother Emmanuel, the root cause of all our failings, all our sin, and in his words, all the evil of the world.  In his book, also titled Love, Imperfectly Known:  Beyond Spontaneous Representations of God (2011), he suggests that we free ourselves to know our loving God more clearly, without the filter of the types of psychological and theological conditioning that keep us separated from God, from ourselves, and ultimately from one another (Kindle Edition, LOC 152).  According to Brother Emmanuel, we must…

…quest for the ultimate meaning of life, the ultimate meaning of love.  That will have repercussions on daily life, particularly the loving words and actions that may take place in it (Kindle Edition, LOC 163).

So, I have changed my mind.  You see, the words of confession that I have not loved my neighbor as myself may or may not be reminding me that I should forgive more, complain less, and help more people more often.  These words are most assuredly reminding me that I must learn to love better, learn to love more like God loves me.  And, the hidden meaning in those words?  Before I can do any of these things with any authenticity at all, I must learn that I, too, am worthy of love because I am already loved with a love that exceeds all my human ability to comprehend.

I have indeed, loved you, my neighbor, as I have loved myself.  And for that, I am sorry and I humbly do confess.

A movement, not an institution…

I am a person who lives in the questions.  No, really, I mean, I question everything.  I question the use of the most simple words, words that we use every day and assume that everyone with whom we speak them understands.  I question everything.

This state of being is partly the result of the work I did to put my life back together after my divorce, partly the result of a lifelong inquisitiveness that drove my parents to distraction and has caused me to spend more years of my life enrolled in some sort of educational program than, well, is at all natural by the standards of our society.

Right now I am sitting with a number of what are, for me,  deeply fundamental questions.  These questions and what I decide to believe about my answers to them will help decide the next steps in my life and probably define the remainder of my days.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  We will have to see about that particular question.

For now, my deliberations and questioning keep focusing over and over again on the words of Mahan Siler from the closing worship at the Alliance of Baptists 28th Annual Festival Gathering last Sunday.  I don’t often take notes during a sermon, but I took many while he spoke, and the words which will not leave mefishmuralare the ones that Rev. Siler used to describe the 28 years of Alliance history.  The
Alliance, he said, has existed as it began — as a movement, not as an institution, a leader-full movement in which the gifts of all are welcome.  It was formed, and continues to live, as a covenant-based movement, a movement built on and nurtured through relationship and partnership, because, ultimately, all life and all faith-life is based in relationship.

Rev. Siler gave me a set of eloquent words to describe the very thing for which I crave.  You see, some of the words I’m grappling with right now are words like “church” and “community”,  because lately I have come to believe that even the most loving and progressive among us do not often grasp that, when we use those words, even with the best of intention, we have still created a situation in which there is an “us” and a “them”, some inside the circle and some outside. And, if we tie those words to a physical institution, we begin to think of them as a thing to be maintained and experienced rather than a way of life to be lived.  I do not know where my current questions will lead me, but after last weekend, I have faith that I am not alone in my quest for answers.

And by his words I was reminded of this: how often we forget that the earliest name for the followers of the teachings of Jesus was not the building down the block on the corner but the Way.  From the origins of our faith, we have been a movement, not an institution.  Thank you, Rev. Siler, for helping me remember that.  Thank you, Alliance of Baptists, for doing everything that you can to live into your identity as a movement devoted to growing in faith and living in justice through relationship and partnership, with individuals and with organizations.

 

 

Threads lost and found…

Yesterday, the 28th Annual Festival Gathering of the Alliance of Baptists to a close with a joint worship service with our hosts, the Northside Drive Baptist redthread8Church.  As a kind of benediction to the work and learning that had occurred during these past days, we heard the words of Mahan Siler, one of the movement’s founders.

I’m going to have a lot to say about his words to us and so much more that touched my faith and the ways I live that faith in this world during this gathering, but for now, on this Monday morning after, I wanted to share with you the poem that he shared with us.  It is a really good poem for a Monday, with the week and all the possibility it holds spread before us:

The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
(William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998)
I don’t know about you, but I needed the reminder.  And I’m writing it down because, well, I’m sure that I will need it again.  Right now, I am just grateful that there is a movement like the Alliance of Baptists around to remind me to find my thread and to follow it without fail, and to remind me that it is my obligation, born out of my relationship with my God, to do so.
After the experience of the last few days, all I have to say is…Amen.

 

It’s all gone with the wind…and that’s okay

Greetings from Atlanta and the 28th Annual Alliance of Baptists Festival Gathering.  Please excuse the title…it will all become clear later, I hope; but I could not resist the opportunity to use those famous words from this place.

I’ve been here since Wednesday evening, attending sessions on pastoral care and christian formation with 400+ of my progressive baptist friends at this year’s conference, poetically named, “We’ve a Story to Hear from the Nations.”  Last night, we were blessed to gather with Paco Rodes of the Fraternity of Baptist Churches in Cuba and to worship with beautiful Cuban music; tonight we will invite God in with the words of Rusudan Gotsiridze of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia (and I can’t wait to hear what we will sing).  We’ve had workshops on listening to others across the divide of privilege (including an excellent discussion of the all the ways that an individual can experience privilege and exclusion, often simultaneously), we’ve talked about lobbying for important legislation, and we’ve had business meetings (it is, after all, a gathering of baptists).  It has, so far, been wonderful.

The most surprising thing about this experience, for me, however, has been the number of people who are here, at this festival gathering, that no longer have a local church affiliation.  There are also many here who identify as baptist but worship at the local Episcopal church or the local Methodist church or the local (fill-in-the-blank church).  Yes, there are many representatives of congregations here, but there also independent pastoral counselors and people from intentional communities and…well, I’m sure that there are other places I just have not yet discovered.

The room is full of people who believe fervently in the Baptist distinctives as a way of living and as a way of being a disciple.  Where you worship, how you worship — that is a completely different proposition.

You see, we spend so much time arguing about the death of the church as a cultural institution.  We argue about how to market, how to bring the millenials back to church, how to fill the pews and the coffers.  And to me, it is clear that the church of the 1950’s must be allowed to die.  It must be allowed to die and to be transformed through resurrection, the foundation of our faith.  It must be, gone-with-the-wind-5172_1as Margaret Mitchell once said, gone with the wind.  Particularly if “wind” refers to the action of the Holy Spirit.

And how can I believe this?  Well, here in Atlanta, at this gathering, I have seen that resurrection.  I have seen people reach across cultures and denominations and embrace a set of personal rules about what it means to be a disciple — and  come together with others of like orientation.

I’ll be writing more about the baptist distinctives over the next weeks as I continue my own re-examination of my personal identity as a disciple.  But here, in Atlanta, I have had re-affirmed what I suspected and now firmly believe:  that no matter where or how I worship, nor what local community I choose to embrace, I will be, now and forever, a Baptist and the Alliance will always hold out a hand of welcome to me.

Amen.

A Nostalgic Kind of Holy Day…

I find myself, each Maundy Thursday, feeling, well — nostalgic.   Yes,  I am moved deeply by the invitation to walk alongside Jesus through this most difficult and yet most glorious part of his story, our story together.   This day, however, is also an intricate piece of my own story as a person and as a disciple, one of those places where my tale intersects with the story of the Christ in unusual ways.

Let’s go back to the beginning, well, my beginning.  You see, my parents had a difficult relationship with the idea of church after the death of my brother.  My earliest memories of this season were of Maundy Thursday services,  because my father wouldn’t join “the other hypocrites” on Easter Sunday (um…his words, not mine) .  My Dad had an opinion about everything (just one of the many ways in which I follow in his footsteps) and one of his strong opinions was about “the Christmas-Easter people” at church.  I don’t know whether or not he just didn’t like the crowds (they might have interrupted his nap during the service) or if Easter was often too close to his birthday or whether this idea was just a convenient excuse to not attend yet another Sunday service, but that was the rule we lived by.  We attended on Maundy Thursday, not Easter Sunday.

Many years and many congregations later, I found myself as a substitute chorister at a Maundy Thursday service at the Calvary Baptist Church.  I eventually joined that community and embraced the idea of identifying as a Baptist.   And as each Maundy Thursday rolled around for the next 8 years, I worshiped and wept for Jesus and for my own failings as part of that community. I worked as a musician there, I was baptized (again) there, I served on committees and participated in church governance (a very Baptist thing to do), I was licensed to the Gospel ministry there, I served as a teacher and a deacon and in any other capacity that was needed.

Tonight, in many churches, there will be a dinner before the members gather at the Table.  Tonight, there may be foot washing in response to the command “Do this (John 13:14-17)”.  Tonight, churches that are not Eucharistic by nature (that are, in fact generally non-Eucharistic in worship), will celebrate and remember as we have been instructed to remember…with the bread and the wine/wine substitute.  And they will tell the story again, the story of togetherness and the story of betrayal.

And yet tonight, all that I can think of is the incredible loneliness that there must have been in that room. The disciples were, I am sure, afraid and uncertain and each lost in their lonely thoughts of what might come.  Jesus must have felt so alone in the presence of his disciples — they understood but through a glassE_footwashingdarkly, there was so much to do, his Father must have seemed so far away in the presence of Peter who would deny him and Judas who would betray him.  And yet,  he washed their feet.  He offered the greatest act of hospitality that could be offered.  He said to them, yes, you will deny me, you will fail me day after day, and yet I offer you all the hospitality our God has to offer — because I know that in your daily failure you will continue to try to live the one great commandment that I have left with you:  “ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35).”

What we often miss this, however, the story of ultimate and total forgiveness and love contained in this story.  We often miss the true command here:  Jesus does not just tell us to remember, he does not tell us to think about him, he does not tell us even to tell his story.  He tells us to do this…”For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13:15).”

I don’t know about you, but if I look back on the months since the last Maundy Thursday, I fail at this daily, but I do continue to try — try to love, try to forgive, try to be reconciled, try to do this.  And so, even though I join no community in worship tonight, I remember these all important words of confession that are so appropriate today in particular and for most of the days of my oh-so-human life:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Communion 397 We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.  

Amen, indeed.

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
and
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.

Amen.

 

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.