Let’s talk about….questions

Ever since I can remember,  I have been chasing my ideas about life with a single solitary question.  That question? The question is this: where did that (that being anything peeking my curiosity) come from (I know, I just ended a sentence with a preposition, sorry).  One of my earliest memories is of the day I followed my then-beagle companion Toby into the dog house because I wondered where shesusan&toby2 was when she went through that little hole.  My father’s reaction was not one of amusement. It was one of the few times I remember being punished as a small child. Well, maybe the punishment came because once inside the dog house I tried to hide there and lied in response to his question, “are you in that doghouse”, but clearly the threat of punishment was not enough to halt me in my quest to understand what was behind the mysterious opening.

That may be the first memory of my questioning spirit,  but, with the gift of reflection (or might I say, hindsight), I  can see so many ways that this question and my search for the answer has defined my journey.  The thread is so easy to follow.  For example, I entered college as a history major focused on the Elizabethan period of British history and, through the continual study of the antecedents of each historical age (that is, the Renaissance influences on the Reformation, the medieval influences on the Renaissance, and so forth) , I graduated with a Masters in  Ancient Near Eastern history and wrote a thesis on the 18th Dynasty of Egypt– instead of a specialization in all things Elizabethan. For example.

This trend of thread-following continued and continues to this very day. Years of participating in faith communities of various flavors eventually led me to study at a seminary outside any of those traditions.  I was on a quest to understand the foundations (the orthodox position, as it were) of the faith around which I form my very existence.  That path of inquiry has led me deeper and deeper into the study of the Jewish culture that formed the original context of that faith and that, for me, still lives and breathes through everything we do and believe.  I am unable to separate what is now from the context of its formation.

Clearly, I ask a lot of questions.  I question authority (of all kinds, basically, I’m against it in principle unless the right to it is clearly earned).  I question the meaning of what most would consider basic words, words about which most assume we English speakers all share a commonality of understanding.

And lately, I have many more questions than answers about the building blocks of my life and so, it seems that it is time to embark on an organized program of sorting and definition — particularly about the words we use.  You see, how we understand these important words, how we define the concepts that form our lives — these ideas are the foundation around  which we form relationships and participate in social groupings.  These are the tools by which we make meaning in our lives, and making meaning is our primary drive as human beings (once we have satisfied the need for food, water, shelter, and a modicum of safety).  The way we think (our ideology) and the way we arrange ourselves (our social structure) reinforce each other; if one is broken or damaged, then, so is the other.

New Testament scholar Timothy Luke Johnson refers to this phenomenon  in sociological terms as our “symbolic world”.  Our symbolic world, according to Johnson,  is “a system shared meaning that enables us to live together as a group. A symbolic world is not imaginary; it includes more than specialized concepts and involves, in particular, “the fundamental perceptions that ground a community’s existence and that therefore do not need to be debated or justified.  These symbols pervade every level of the group’s life.  They effect the spatial and temporal arrangements and the rituals that mark them. …The symbolic world shared by a group can be discerned from the things that go without saying, the references implied by phrases such as “an so forth,” or even by gestures (pg. 11, The Writings of the New Testament).

There are many ideas here that strike me as important to my ability to understand my own ideology and my own sense of social structure.  First,  clearly there are a lot of inside jokes in a symbolic world, and therefore, there seems to be much in this idea of symbolic world that creates an “us” and “them” structure. There are insiders and outsiders.  Second, shared beliefs not only generate social structures but they also create expectations, often unrealistic and unattainable. Third, I am struck by Johnson’s statement that there is such intense social agreement in the symbolic world that some things just “do not need to be debated or justified.”  What happens, though, when someone in the symbolic world group does begin to debate the foundational assumptions and agreements? What happens when a member begins to question the ideology or the structure itself? Is change possible?  Are those who question automatically shunned or excommunicated (look at what happened to Michael Gungor)?  Does anyone even listen when they ask a question?

I am not simply going down a philosophical rabbit hole for the sake of the idea.   I think that Johnson’s definition gets to the root of our ongoing discussions about the life or death of the church, the development of the “nones” and now even the “dones“. Clearly, by Johnson’s definition, the institutional church is a symbolic world that reached its modern zenith of cultural consensus in the America of the 20th century (one could argue for other “zenith” periods, such as the high period of the Middle Ages and even the Reformation when, although fractured within itself, church was the dominant social structure) and that now faces voices from both the inside and the outside that question that shared belief system.  What happens to those of us who dare to ask questions like what is really meant by the word “church”, by the word “community”, and by the label “dying”?  What if that symbolic world, intolerant of debate and questioning, is driving away those that might lead our understanding of faith into a new world — just because they refuse to conform to the requirements of a symbolic world that should be, let’s face it, at the very least changed and in all likelihood, gone?

I am still struggling with these words, church and community, and I will write more about those struggles as I have more ideas become clear.  I am clear on one thing, however — my own symbolic world is broken.  I am willing to consider the possibility that death may be necessary for the life of my faith — we are, after all, a resurrection people.

What if it is, in the words of the poem attributed to St. Francis of Assisi,  in the dying that our faith will be born to eternal life, born to the presence of the Kingdom of God on earth? What if the death of the “church” is just the process of kicking down a man-made space that is now too small to contain the life and spirit of that God on earth?  What if the death that we experience of our beloved institution is just the process by which we throw off another layer of something that separates us from that Kingdom?  What if our truth is the same as that of Obi- Wan Kenobi, who wisely said to the evil Darth Vader:  ” If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

As I said, I have more questions than answers, but I will continue to ask them both silently and out loud because, well, that is who I am.  Maybe there is a symbolic world somewhere for those of us who ask too many questions….

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 and our story together.   This day, however, forms 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 —  my own beginning, that is.  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 on 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  as 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 about 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_footwashing darkly. 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, however, is the essence of this story:  the ultimate and total forgiveness and love that it contains.  We often miss the true commandment 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 have failed at this commandment 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 on 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.  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.

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.

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.


What I’ve Learned So Far….the Graduation Blog

The night we gathered as a graduating class to talk about the work of our Capstone projects and theses was a celebratory one.  Congratulations, hugs, tears…a chance to spend time with our faculty advisers (even though they were in the throws of the final grading needed to get us all to graduation).  And in the midst of that, a friend who had witnessed many times my opening introduction of “I’m not from a diocese, I’m a Baptist” whispered in my ear, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”   And the Episcopal church did welcome me.  It did not try to convert me, it did not try to change my theology.  Instead, it graciously shared with me its tools and its teachings and allowed me the space and the time to incorporate them into my own understanding of faith.  I was welcomed indeed and welcomed in such a way that in my very difference I found an incredible sense of community and belonging.

And now, some time has passed since the day of celebration, the smiles and the congratulations. Friends have gone their separate way and the adrenaline that propelled us all to the finish, at least for me, has begun to fade.  With time and rest, finally, I have had time to think and process, and graduation singlehave something to say again — something not part of a project or a paper that will move me one step closer to completing my studies.  The day of graduation, the culmination of all this change and growth, and the reaching of a goal that frankly, last year at this time I was not certain I would live to reach…these things deserve remembrance.

There are lots of things that I will remember about that final day, the day when all my studies were signed, sealed and delivered in the presence of friends and loved ones:  I could talk about what it felt like to sing in front of so many again, how I successfully climbed that hill from the Seminary to the Chapel several times in a hurry that day (running between events and rehearsals), how inspiring Barbara Brown Taylor was as a graduation speaker, how moved I was by the presence of good friends who had seen me through my call and the trials of this last year and held me in the light as I scrambled to finish.  All of those things will go in my memory box, along with the physical cards and the ad in the Washington Post and the pressed flowers and programs.

If I had to summarize for you, though, the powerful learning of two years study with the Episcopalians I would offer you this image.  In the midst of the chaos that is a large, grand worship/graduation ceremony (and it was grand, and meaningful, even for this Baptist…and, I might add, beautifully planned and executed), at the end of the procession as I looked up from the hymn page in front of me, I caught a glimpse of an unknown older man at the end of the procession.  I don’t know who he was — he might have been a retired faculty member, he might have been some other kind of honored guest — but on his face and in the movement of his body was the most ebullient sense of joy.  His joy at participating in the worship service and the ceremony sending out another group of disciples created a light that shone throughout the sanctuary.  I could not take my eyes from him, although he was in my sight for just a moment.

And that, my friends, is the greatest gift of learning I have received in these two years of worship and learning in the land of my fellow Christians who commune as Episcopalians.  That even in the dark days when we are worried about church and budgets and committees and all of the things of this world, we have immediate access to the simple light of joy that comes with the acceptance of grace in our lives.  We may argue about how to worship and what kind of music to sing and the meaning of this or that doctrine, but if we cannot put that all aside as things of a less-than-successful human attempt to interpret the divine being known as church, we miss the true reason that we do all of this.

That man knew the answer.  Many of my Episcopal colleagues know the answer and they were willing to share it with me so that I might share it with others, just as the Psalmist has tried to share that truth with believers down the ages:

For his anger is but for a moment,
    and his favor is for a lifetime.[c]
Weeping may tarry for the night,
    but joy comes with the morning. Psa 30:5

I have many changes ahead, I have much to do, but in those moments when I lose the thread of grace for just a moment, I will remember the joy in that chapel that morning and hear the voice of a friend saying in my ear, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” and I will remember the warm feeling of that special welcome, the welcome of diversity in community, the welcome of joy and grace.  Thanks be to God.

The storm is passin’ over…

This morning my musical brain is full of the sounds of Charles Tindley’s hymn (recast in its popular gospel arrangement), “The Storm is Passing Over” and this is not a random soundtrack for this day.  It is, in fact, a welcome, blessed message from my soul that I have been waiting a long time to hear, a message that as recently as yesterday seemed impossible.

You see, yesterday was the one year anniversary of my seizure while travelling in Israel, the first recognizable symptom of the congenital heart valve defect that I had been living with for all these years.  It was the beginning of the long journey through doctors visits and fear and surgery and tagbharecovery and back to living and learning and life.  Last year, May 19 was the day of Pentecost and we were in Tagbha.  This year, I was rehearsing for graduation at the Virginia Theological Seminary.

And yesterday, this yesterday, may be the first moment that I actually, truly felt the sadness of this last year, the year since that seizure, the year since that last day of Pentecost.  Yesterday, I was sad, I was unable to focus, I was in so many ways frightened all over again.  I was completely unable to feel the joy of the events going on around me, events I was supposedly participating in with friends and colleagues walking the path of graduation together. But this morning, the music in my soul tells me that the famous prayer of Teresa of Avila is truth spoken simply:  indeed, all will be well, all will be well, and all will be well.  And today seems to be the beginning of that transformation.

I keep a picture of the famous mosaic from Tagbha on my wall, above my desk.  That picture has been there all these many weeks and months as a reminder of the beginning (or at least, the
known beginning) of this unwanted journey.  I haven’t always been able to look at its simple beauty, sometimes the pain of remembrance was too great to see the simple faith presented there, just like I have not always been able to see the hand of God in the events of this last year.

Today, though, surrounded by the kind of feelings of possibility that I have not experienced in a long, long time, I look at the basket and the fishes and I think that I will see Tagbha again…that place of remembrance, and so many more.  And I am beginning to see just a little hint of the blessing on my life that has come from this journey — not just the healing itself (for which I am extremely grateful), but the chance to learn about myself and others, and the chance to understand so much about faith and live, things that I would never have known through any other path. And as the clouds clear and the sun begins to shine just a little bit brighter, I really can believe that the storm is passing over…at least for today.

Wherever two or more are gathered…

I read that quotation again this morning as I read Pastor Amy’s amazing article about the importance of community in the new book Gathering Together:  Baptists at Work in Worship, but the truth is, I have been thinking about it for weeks and in particular these last few days.  Because right now I am in a unique position to testify to the power of  a community of worship.

You see, on Sunday, as I attended what will be my last worship service for a while, people of my community gathered around me and sang songs and prayed over me and laid hands upon me and hugged me.  They cried with me, they smiled with me, they invited God into the events of our lives together.  The liturgy was short; the love was large.

And the love continues…with notes, with cards, with flowers, with Facebook posts, with unseen prayers.  And I am lucky enough to have two such communities in my life.  I am truly blessed in so many ways.

So we have completed all the tasks over which we have any control — we have redecorated, we have cleaned, we have prepared.  Our beloved fur child Gracie has gone to what we call the 20th susansnestStreet spa, where she will be comforted and cared for by someone we trust and love.  And now, we leave for Baltimore.

And so I want to take a moment and tell anyone who reads this, there is power in community.  I feel loved and cared for, I feel as safe and enfolded in possibility as a person facing the events of tomorrow can.  And that is all because of my community of faith, their love, and the standard of devotion to which we hold each other in times of crisis, and well, always.

I go forward to take the next step on this journey wrapped in the warmth of that community.  I go forward to do what I need to do to go on serving the God I hold dear, and, if all goes well, the people around me who love that God with their whole hearts, as do I.

So I’m including a picture of the nest that I have carefully built for my recovery.  When you think of me this week, yes, you can watch opera videos of me on Facebook, but I would prefer that you see me in this nest, next week, well on the road to a life that I cannot even imagine tonight as we begin the process of repair and recovery.

And I say to all of you, embrace the community around you.  Because wherever two or or more gathered…well, you know how the quote ends.  Just know that it is so true…