Going plural…

I had never heard the phrase, until about a month ago.  And why would I?  Apparently it is a phrase that comes out of the Peter Drucker school of management theory — not exactly my specialty.  There is even a consultancy manual to guide the executive towards diversification.  The friend who used the phrase in relationship to my life and the many and varied ways I am drawn in my life, said that they first heard it while travelling in Africa and believed it to be a cultural term, not a business one.  In my dreams, my research led me to anthropological tracts about the glorious of a natural, unsegmented life and the evils of the western emphasis on specialization.  I like my made-up definition better, of course, but the truth of it is, though, that hearing those two words lifted the weight of the world from my shoulders and gave me permission, well, to be me.

You see, when you graduate from seminary, everyone expects you to seek ordination.  Otherwise, why did you go to seminary?

And if you have devoted your life to making music and performing, surely you must be all about your singing career, right?

And if you happen to be a somewhat appealing writer, why aren’t you focusing on that career?  Or your call to live into the storyteller’s art?

And what about that call to listen and to teach?  Why aren’t you focusing on growing your practice as a spiritual director?  Why are you still singing?  Why do you spend so much time at the library?

And the ultimate question — why don’t you just grow up and choose something to do?

Why? Why? Why?  These are just a few of the questions that I meet on a regular basis, from people who know me just a little and from people who know me well — because, well, going plural is just not the done thing in our culture, not a willing done thing, anyway.

I used to believe that in that moment when I finally heard God’s voice clearly , well, my calling would be one thing, right?  A solid path, a single way — something clear and, well, direct.  I could not have been more wrong.  And I could not have spent more hours and days tied in knots, thinking that I didn’t yet know my next step because, well, it was a single thing.

There are many threads to my life — and sometimes they get, well, a little tangled.  And I know that to many people, I look unfocused.  And, I spend way to much time crying because I believe their analysis.

I’m changing that.  I choose to believe God’s analysis instead — yes, people, I’m going plural.  I’m stopping the quest for a tent big enough to hold all of these section-top-fabric-1things and tie them together into a single cloth — I realize now that I am that clothe.  I am the woven creation and on the best days, love operates the shuttle.

So, world, I am putting myself on notice.  This is the last day I complain about being splintered, about being pulled in too many directions.  This is the last day that I let that perception immobilize me.  The loom is dressed.  Let the weaving begin.

I’m going plural in a big, big way.  Many colors, many threads — who knows what the final clothe will be like?

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….

Five times a day…

I remember so clearly my first experience in the city of Istanbul — the sound of the call to prayer coming from the beautiful Blue Mosque as the day was done. Of course, my travel companion and I were sitting in a rooftop bar sipping from a glass of hot apple tea, having just arrived in the city and experiencing jet-lag beyond belief.  But each and every day, five times a day, we were drawn by that sound — a sound simultaneously foreign and comforting to us .  We laughed at the time, saying that we thought perhaps we should initiate a call to prayer from the bell tower at our church, the Calvary Baptist Church.

Maybe that was not a joke after all.  At least, this many years later, it does not seem like a joke to me, because, it turns out that fixed hour prayer is, well, a Christian thing too.

If you continue to study the history of your Christian faith and of the earthly church, eventually you will encounter (more than once) the story of the of the practice of fixed prayer. And perhaps if, like me, your faith has been nurtured in that rich vein of church traditions built upon the history  of the protestant dissent movement that was the Great Reformation, well, you might dismiss fixed prayer without consideration, you know, as something the Catholics do, in those silly and now historically irrelevant monasteries. Funny how seriously the property lust of one English king 500 years ago can continue to influence our theological understanding of worship.

But if you keep studying, maybe just maybe, that knee-jerk-learned-prejudice might just fall away. You might encounter Sr. Joan Chittister and learn more and more about the ways of St. Benedict and all that it has to say to our post modern culture. You might meet Dr. Roberta Bondi and hear first person testimony about work.5424991.1.flat,550x550,075,f.icon-of-st-benedict-and-scholasticathe importance of fixed hour prayer in the face of a life filled with gender discrimination in the academy. Or you might meet Brother David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (the monastic order of the Episcopal Church) or Brother Emmanuel of the ecumenical community at Taize…and you cannot help but begin to question those old prejudices.

And then, you find the work of Glenn Hinson.  Glenn Hinson, church historian and to some, a Baptist heretic (being part of the split in the Southern Baptist Convention that led to the formation of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), produced an amazing book,  Baptist Spirituality: A Call for Renewed Attentiveness to God (2013) in which he recounts the Baptist journey away from the contemplative formation practices of their Puritan forbears towards a type of conversionist spirituality based in the transactional nature of 19th and 20th century American business practice. He calls for a return to our contemplative roots and a spirituality rooted in attentiveness to God in our lives and not the numbers in our pews. While he proposes no specific spiritual practice,  he too has been influenced by the teachings of St. Benedict and more directly, by the work of Thomas Merton, with whom he studied.

It was Phyllis Tickle who provided me with the final push towards the idea of fixed prayer as a possible practice. Tickle’s writing usually disrupts my theology (particularly my ecclesiology) so drastically that I find it difficult to complete whatever book of hers I am reading, so it was with some trepidation that I picked up one of the volumes in her Divine Hours series, a collection of books that contain reworked versions of the Benedictine prayer book.  You may or may not know that Ms. Tickle is walking through a very serious illness right now and doing so as the beloved public person of faith that she has been for many of us. This news caused me to thumb through my collection of her works only to pick up my copy of her Divine Offices and begin to skim through the introduction.

Skimming turned to deep reading as I encountered ideas like these…that the practice of fixed prayer comes to us not from the Catholic Church and early monasticism but from our Jewish faith ancestors and the life of the Temple now destroyed and comes to us through the pages of the Bible which we dissenters hold do dear. And the other mind blowing concept for this Protestant? FIXED PRAYER IS A FORM OF WORSHIP. How often do we think of prayer and worship as separate activities? In truth they are not. In truth there are private and public iterations of both.

And so, my friends, here I am.  Each day for a month, I have followed Ms. Tickle’s breviary, Prayers for Summertime:  A Manual for Prayer (Divine Hours).  No monastery, no habit, just me, my book, and a cup of tea.  Not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but new to me and my lived faith. I am still failing at achieving the five-times-a-day pattern each and every day, but even with my human failing of irregularity, I feel the value of the practice.  Instead of meaning less to silently recite the Gloria Patri or the Lord’s Prayer, it means more.   The prayers begin to live in your bones, not just in the words.  I guess that is the true meaning of practice.

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…

 

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.

 

 

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 a mystic are not mutually exclusive — that, friends, is my life.  And for that lesson, Virginia Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary and the Columbia 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.

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.

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 where the people of Israel underwent that fundamental transition from a people wandering in the wilderness to a people, claiming the land that was promised to them.  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 a total and irrevocable change to his life:  a change in vocation (he had, up until now, worked as a tradesman with his father), and that sense of bereavement and dislocation that comes with such a 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.