Friends don’t let friends get crucified …

Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, 2014. The word “maundy” comes from the mandate Jesus gives his followers on the night of their last supper together

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
(John 13:34)

The “as I have loved you,” comes on the heels of Jesus washing his disciples feet, as a servant would, and so this story helps us to see why later writers would describe Jesus as one who

though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

I’ve been thinking today about another verse in John, also from the farewell sections. Jesus says,

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 15:15)

So, when Jesus gives the mandate to love each other as he has loved, he is asking us to call each other friends. Which may sound light and fluffy. But Jesus sees friendship and love differently:

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life
for one’s friends. (John 1:13)

In the next few days, no one was able to join Jesus in that kind of love. But isn’t that what the call is? Was there a nonviolent uprising (or laying down) that could have happened in those days? Should anyone ever lay down their life alone?

That nonviolent revolution certainly unfolded in the months and years and centuries that followed.

But the heaviness in my heart and throat this day is for those still being crucified, by hunger, by oppression, by violence, by fear … the list of causes is endless, but it all boils down to a failure to love. I am part of that failure. I am failing friends I know and friends I don’t know yet, by letting myself forget how I am called to them and to their lives.

I cannot let my inability to serve as I would like to have served keep me from serving at all. Let me carry the towel today, Jesus, my troubling friend. Let me carry it every day. And when I drop it, as I do, help me to pick it up again.

Posted in Lenten reflection, Love | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Feast of the Annunciation: And Mary Sang

Sermon for Wake Forest Baptist Church
Feast of the Annunciation in the season of Lent
Isaiah 7:10-14, Psalm 40, Luke 1:26-38

Spring in winter … winter in spring … the stormy dregs of winter fit our Lenten struggles. We don’t want to throw off the covers when the morning air is cold, but that same dawn also brings the light. Digging into ice-hardened earth, we plow toward the passion, believing the allelulias of Easter are somewhere down this potholed road.

Light in darkness. Darkness in light. Looking at the texts for this season, I found the Feast of the Annunciation right smack dab in the middle of Lent. In the literal thinking of the pre-modern church, someone figured that a Jesus born on December 25 must have been conceived around March 25, and so, here we are, with a chance to see the light in the midst of the darkness … and the darkness in the light.

Which may be a moment that resonates here at Wake Forest Baptist Church. This community is in a season that likely feels full of both questions and possibilities, challenges and charges.

How did we get here? Where are we going next? Is God still with us?

Great questions. And, it is a good and faithful thing to be asking questions. As we’ll see. So, let’s do this. Let’s have a bit of Advent in the midst of Lent.

So. Isaiah. Ahaz. What’s going on in this Old Testament reading? Did the lectioneers just pick this text because Matthew quotes it in his birth narrative? Maybe. But if we are going to read Isaiah, let’s read Isaiah. Let’s hear what he’s saying in his own context, before we read him into Luke’s story … or ours.

Our reading today begins with the word “Again.” That right there tells us we have just landed in the middle of something. Looking back at Isaiah 6, we see Isaiah having a wild vision full of angels and wings and thrones. And God is calling … “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah jumps up, “Here I am! Send me!” And so God gives Isaiah a message for the people of Judah, and their king Ahaz.

The backstory is that Ahaz and Judah are about to be under attack. Isaiah prophesies that the attack will fail, but that Ahaz must be firm in his faith. Isaiah is very stern about this: “If you do not stand firm in the faith, you do not stand at all.”

And then God, maybe noticing Ahaz is not standing too firm, says to Ahaz directly, “Go ahead. Ask me for a sign. Make it as high as the heavens or as deep as Sheol.”

That’s quite an invitation. From God’s own self. What does Ahaz say? “No … I don’t want to put the Lord to the test.”

Wow. Really? God offers you a sign and you say, “Yeah, no. No thanks.”

Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it. Maybe Ahaz didn’t want a sign. Maybe Ahaz didn’t want to be encouraged to face his enemies. Haven’t we all been there? Afraid to ask, because what if God says no? Or, even scarier … what if God says “Yes!”?

So, Ahaz is on the fence. But Isaiah, doing what prophets do, gives him a shove. “You don’t want a sign? You don’t want to know the answer? Too bad. God’s going to give you a sign anyway. See that young woman over there? She’s pregnant. And when she has her baby, she’s going to name him Immanuel.”

In other words, whether you are asking or not, Ahaz, whether you are trusting or not, God is with us.

Now let’s zoom out to 60,000 feet and see the shape of this story. Calling. Invitation. Refusal! And yet … signs and wonders from an ever-present God.

When we turn to the reading from Luke, we find that again, a messenger has come from God. This time it’s the angel Gabriel, come to speak to a young woman named Mary. Many of us know this story so well, it can be hard to hear it fresh. But let’s listen for how the story moves, and see what we can see.

The angel Gabriel greets Mary, leading with his best news. “Mary! Favored one! The Lord is with you!”

Mary, as you or I would be, is somewhat taken aback, to say the least. She is, the scripture tells us, perplexed. She – not for the last time – ponders. Who and what is this?

Gabriel has to use the usual angelic follow-up: “Fear not.” And then says, “You have found favor with God.”

But then comes the “And now …”

“And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and he will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end!”

Wow. Angels, wings, thrones and kings. That’s quite a message Gabriel just delivered. And, if we are paying attention, some aspects of it might be a little familiar. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Because Mary, real live flesh and blood woman that she is, in that particular time and space and betrothal status, is not surprisingly still back there at “And now, you will conceive in your womb …”

“How can this be?” she asks. She asks … “I’m still a virgin, you know.”

She may be afraid … but Mary asks …

Gabriel answers, although the fuller disclosure just gets more mysterious.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” Overshadow … such a strange word. God, whose light needs darkness in order to draw near …

But Gabriel isn’t done. There’s more. A sign, and a wonder.

“Your cousin Elizabeth, who is old and barren, is six months pregnant. Because nothing is impossible with God!”

There are no words in the scripture for what happens then, in the quiet of a woman’s heart, mind, body and soul. Only God knows what was hanging in the balance. Only Mary knows what she thought and felt. Scripture is silent on her pondering … her fear … her joy.

What we can hear is how she answered … with echoes of the prophet Isaiah.

“Here am I,” she says, “the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Again, let’s zoom out to 60,000 feet, and see the shape of this story. Calling. Invitation. Acceptance! Signs and wonders …. All the elements are there. Where Ahaz could not or would not entrust his life to God, Mary does. Without knowing what she was saying yes to, without knowing what lay ahead, Mary steps up. “Here I am,” she says … and this prophet begins her work.

Of course, that new beginning came at a price. In that moment, she lost her old name. She muddied her reputation and risked her relationship. She left her mother’s house. She spent time in exile. She gave herself to the work of this child, all the while knowing she’d give him back to God.

I am reminded of a question Riane Eisler asks in her book, The Chalice and the Blade: “What if the central image of Christianity were a woman giving birth, rather than a man dying?”

Of course, we wear crosses, not mangers … the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are central to Christianity as we know it, but it might be helpful to tilt the perspective a bit to the incarnational beginning of the story. What can we learn from this prophet who sang her son into his ministries of healing, teaching and liberation, this human being who trusted God and never turned away?

A good question for a church pregnant with possibility.

It can be powerful – when faced with enormous challenges – to remember how you got here. Even our children do this. “Tell me again about when I was born!” I suspect sometimes Jesus thought back to the story of his beginning … to remember and take heart from the song his mother sang.

So, let’s linger here with Mary, just for a moment.

A woman hears God’s invitation, and says yes. She herself bids God welcome.

A woman becomes intimately acquainted with the innermost heart of God, and is forever changed.

A woman gives the blood of her body, bone of her bone, breath of her breath, bread of her hands, life itself to Love Incarnate.

A woman accepts mystery and not-knowing, loss and exile, birth and death, pondering in her heart, putting her trust in God.

A woman hears the blessing and affirmation of her female family, and she sings!

The very exultation of God rises up in her and she sings praise and prophecy and power into the world.

Calling. Invitation. Acceptance. Signs and wonders. Praise.

Wake Forest Baptist Church, do you hear God’s calling to you?

What invitation is God offering?

New life may not be simple. The prophet Mary can tell you that you’ll risk your name, your reputation, your relationships. You may have to leave your mother’s house to follow God’s call. You may have to give yourself over to a creation that ultimately belongs to God.

Signs and wonders are all around you … do you see them?

How will you answer?

May the God of Mary and Jesus,
the God of spring in winter,
the God of light in darkness,
overshadow you with wings of grace,
and bring you a new song to sing.

Posted in Lenten reflection, Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Resistance is futile … but instructive

Meet Mr. Bojangles, aka Bo. Because he’s really not even big enough for a one-letter name, but Bo will do. (Maybe Beau when he gets a few more ounces on him.)

Mr. Bojangles

Mr. Bojangles

My beloved M and I have been talking about getting a dog for years. She has been a dog person, and I have not. When people asked me if I had a pet, I’d say, “No, I have kids.” Then, for about six months, I was saying “No, I had kids. Who are now at college. Yay!” I’m an introvert. Really … what is the problem with an empty nest?

The aforementioned kids, of course, asked for a dog once upon a time, and got a stern “No.” As a newly single mom, that was more than I could take on. Besides, I’m just not into fur. I would pet other people’s dogs and cats … kind of like they would acknowledge my teenagers. All of these accoutrements were just fine … over there.

But the conversation continued. I’d catch my sweetheart watching puppy porn on YouTube; it was usually a bulldog snoring or a brilliant, tiny dog being clever. She’d sigh wistfully.

Oddly, I was developing my own yen. I saw an Airedale being walked around town; I finally met the owner and petted it. Then I began to covet it. Later we met a sweet wire-haired terrier on one of our camping trips. A trend was emerging. Dogs with beautiful lines and wooly coats — not fur.

But when it came right down to it, I kept saying no. Just not a dog person. And now with both kids about to be gone? Even my sweetheart knew that was a lot of freedom to give up.

Then I ended up between jobs, with writing projects and perhaps something more substantive on the horizon, but a few months away. “Great time to get a puppy …” she suggested. I began cruising the local shelter web sites again.

A casual afternoon out looking at puppies turned into a rendezvous with a seller in Garner, NC, at a Bojangles. (You see where this is going.) From which we departed with a puppy.

Without either of us intending it to, this triggered quite the little existential crisis for me. I was thrown back into the baby days, when life at home with a newborn and not nearly enough village was more than I could handle. Shortest maternity leave ever. (Sorry, Harper. We got better as we went along, though, right?)

After the first 24 hours with a too-young puppy and a too-inexperienced me, my beloved M was getting a concerned look on her face. “You know, we can always adopt him out.”

“AND THEN I WILL HAVE FAILED AT DOG!” I yelled inside. Fortunately, all that came out was “Yeah … that’s true.”

I had much thinking time and long conversations with myself that night and the next day. Can’t do this. What does that mean … what does it feel like? I’m a failure. Well, maybe not a failure. Maybe a human being. Who can’t do dog. Again, what’s the feeling in there? It’s too much all the time-ness. It’s taking up too much space in my thoughts. I have to schedule around it. I’m trapped. Is there a feeling in there somewhere? Sad. Mad. Scared. Yeah. Ever felt like that before? Yeah. Babies. And dogs. Uh-huh. What about when you were a baby? Oh.

See, there’s this little self inside there who has wordless embodied memories of parents that were gone a lot, and absent-minded or unpredictable when physically present. In technical terms, it’s called insecure attachment, and the after-effects of it can persist into adulthood. People who had insecure attachments as infants and toddlers can have trouble connecting clear into adulthood. My childhood did not have the greatest care for me as a helpless small thing, and did not in turn teach me how to care for small helpless things.

Being able to parent my kids was a challenge that I feel like I have spent all of their lives living into. And now, in some moments it feels like here we go again. Which is probably why I avoided the dog life all these years, just like I tried to avoid having kids. I was sure I did not know how to be a good Mom, and equally sure I did not want to know how to dog. Because intimacy, and love, and faithfulness … and if I don’t do it perfectly, I’ll get yelled at … or worse, something could die. (This actually happened. When I was little little, I had pet rabbits. I forgot to feed them. To teach me a lesson, my parents let them die.)

Better not to take the risk. Keep it simple. Keep it safe. (Keep it lonely … we know how to do lonely. Nobody [else] gets hurt.)

Sometimes the deepest fears drive us the hardest, even though they make no sense at all.

Well. As the Buddhists say, my teacher has showed up. And day by day, Mr. Bojangles and I are learning dog. I’ve cried a little … for the child I was, for those bunnies, for what is not present in my life right now (a job that would keep me too busy for this puppy) … and for what is: A beloved who wants me to have the joy of bonding with a little critter and experiencing its unconditional love. Neighbors (and their pets) who are serving as our puppy’s village. Two compassionate young adults who can’t wait to come home and meet the new addition: their mama’s dog.

I am still saying “Heaven help us all,” but at least I am laughing as I say it.

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Balm in Gilead

UkesIf playing music is an ocean, I just have my toes dipped in. I may never be fully submersed and swimming out to sea, but I’m never leaving the shore, either.

I tried to learn to play guitar when I was a kid; I asked for a guitar for my birthday, and my parents got me one and signed me up for lessons. The lessons were awful; electric guitars with headphones so we could hear ourselves and the instructor could switch among the students, listen in, and give us feedback through our headsets. Nice theory; crappy execution. Male 30-something teacher, three teenage boys and I as students. It was a boys’ locker room. I quit.

Time passed, decades of dedicated audienceship and a few years of Mennonite four-part harmony and how good I sounded hiding in it. Enter my own sweet love, one M. Hill, who played guitar solo or in bands for 30 years before I met her. She would plunk away on her acoustic, singing little love songs while I made supper. Bliss.

In the way that lovers trade histories and point out old tender spots, I told her the guitar lesson story. Christmas rolled around; she bought me a guitar. Taught me a few things. I tried to learn from a book. She was patient and it wasn’t a locker room, but … it didn’t go well.

I didn’t say “I can’t” in my out-loud voice, but I felt it in my heart. The beautiful, glowing guitar went into the closet. (I know. You wouldn’t believe how much it hurts to write those words.)

Then, a few months ago, for some reason, my sweetheart started saying “We should get ukuleles.” I would look at her funny. What part of “It didn’t work out” did she not understand? She’s say, “Only four strings.” Another friend said, “Simple chords,” and strummed, and I thought, “Well, simple for you,” but I also thought, “Two less strings … well … maybe.”

It’s just that I have always wanted to make music. Not just listen to it. But to have it live in my body the way the Spirit does … and come out of my body, the way dancing does. It’s love, right? Right.

I talked myself out of it. Focus on the job search, do your writing, etc. Aaand then one day I said to my beloved M, “Let’s go look at ukuleles.” And we talked each other into one each.

A day later, and there is our love song, “You are My Sunshine,” coming out of my strings and my mouth and I am singing to my sweetheart. A couple of days later and “Amazing Grace” is coming off my strings. A couple of days after that I pick up a 3/4 strum that makes it sound even more real. I spend a week in Philly with my sweetheart and we play in the mornings and the evenings, working up a blues progression and “Ain’t She Sweet,” giggling and strumming.

And then I learned “Balm in Gilead.” Because that song — and how we sounded at Peace Mennonite Church singing in plaintive unison and open-heart harmony — never leaves me. I don’t have a congregation I can sing like that with these days, but when I play the notes, and sing the words, that’s church. Four-string church.

The first time M and I played it through, I erupted into tears. And just cried for a long while. That experience — you musicians know it — and I don’t know how you keep living through it — of having the Spirit well up in you and come out your feelings and your fingers and your voice … It is an ecstasy that doesn’t take you out of yourself: it takes you deeper into yourself and connects you to the Holy and to all that is.

When I hit the C chord and sing “balm,” my voice hits the sound rising from the strings and in the resonance there is balm. A balm for my weary soul, for all the aches in my heart, and all the losses in this fucked-up, beautiful world that I can do little to nothing about.

When I sing that note, and the tears flow, it’s like there are arms holding my broken heart, and helping me to hold the hurt of all the world: murdered children, closed minds, fearful bigotries, all the ways we shame and lonely ourselves to death.

More singing, y’all. Less fear.

More music. Less murder.

More balm. Let’s make it, and give it to each other. Whatever way it takes for you, let’s make there be more life in this old world.

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Losing whose religion?

R.E.M. Losing My ReligionSurf’s up on religious doubt. We’ve heard about millenials leaving the church in droves (although — trust me — young folk are not alone in disenchantment with organized religion), the spiritual-but-not-religious, the backlash against SBNRs, atheists holding Sunday go-to meetings, and now we are turning to the Janus of doubt/faith. But rather than Doubt and Faith facing away from each other, it seems Doubt is taking a hard look at Faith, and Faith is taking a hard look right back.

Of late, pastor-turned-agnostic Ryan Bell is blogging his journey and its surprises at www.yearwithoutgod.com. He spoke with Becky Garrison of Religion Dispatches about his experience:

To be honest, it feels a bit surreal. Having lost my career after being a pastor for 20 years, I’m really questioning the virtue of religion. Yes, I know people tell me religion and God are different, but everything we know about God comes to us through religion.

So to lose one’s religion in such a dramatic fashion as I did, it made sense for me to just walk away and examine the basic tenets of my faith, especially now that I’m not responsible for a church full of people.

It’s early days in Bell’s quest, and he is still searching for language to express his questions. Perhaps he will discover, as I have, that we do not have religion to thank for “everything we know about God.” Framing the God question in terms of “knowing” makes it an epistemological concern. But for many people, God is more mystery than epistemological challenge: their God is beyond knowing, a God of sense and experience. I am in that camp; my experience of God is direct and of a mystical bent. I have never felt excited, convinced or reassured by arguments for God’s existence. Can I then doubt? If my experience of God is not based in “knowing,” what is the nature of my faith?

Bell seems to have lost his religion (or was it just some of his privilege?) when he crossed the line in solidarity with LGBT folk. As an activist for LGBT rights in the conservative Seventh Day Adventist church, Bell gained enough notoriety that his church asked him to resign. When he embraced the questions to the point of evaluating life without God, he lost his adjunct teaching positions, too. He acknowledges that he has often felt like the odd man out, and so this is nothing new (albeit more costly).

Welcome to my world, Brother Ryan. I am too queer for most churches, too Jesus-y for others, too much a pastor to work in the academy or sit comfortably in a pew. My friends appreciate my spirituality, but feel constrained by my Christianity. My mystic’s heart is left cold by most worship services. I don’t fit in available religious settings.

I doubt, all right. I doubt I fit anywhere.

I have found encouragement, though, in the writings of poet Christian Wiman. He has written compellingly about doubt’s enlivenment of faith in his book The Bright Abyss, and had this to say in his interview with Krista Tippett for On Being:

Doubt is so woven in with what I think of as faith that it can’t be separated. I am convinced that the same God that might call me to sing of God at one time might all me at another to sing of godlessness. Sometimes when I think of all of this energy that’s going on, all of this what we’ve talked about, these different people trying to find some way of naming and sharing their belief, I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.

That this is me, I am both frightened and convinced: called by God to disbelieve what doesn’t need to be believed, so that faith can take new forms. I respect the atheists I know, at the same time as I wonder how many SBNRs and agnostics are spirit-embued persons for whom traditional religious forms do not work. Can I get an amen?

David Brooks apparently thinks so. In an opinion piece for the New York Times, “Alone, But Not Alone,” Brooks peers into “yawning gap between the way many believers experience faith and the way that faith is presented to the world.” He claims there is a “silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.”

I don’t know about silent majority (they usually don’t like my kind) or attractively marked (sounds like a designer zoo animal), but the rest of the list is dead on.

Fervor and doubt. In my heart, they go hand in hand. Perhaps that’s why some freethinking friends have invited me to contribute to The Gospel of Doubt, a book project exploring what happens when Doubt casts a gimlet eye at Faith, and Faith gives as good as it gets … particularly empathy and moral demand. Because neither doubt nor faith should distract from feeding hungry people, waging peace, welcoming immigrants, and getting to living wages. Getting to those realities are the question I’m living into. How about you?

Posted in Doubt, Religion, Spirituality, Theology | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Crosspost from Christian Century: Welcome out

(c) 2008 jonl1973, FlickrWhen it comes to church, I’m a wanderer: I don’t have a church home so much as a village of church tents. All this wandering has made me a connoisseur of church welcomes or the lack thereof. I can tell you where I did or didn’t feel welcome—though I can’t always say why.

I am beginning to get a clue, however, from my work as a hospital chaplain. Like churches, chaplains try to create a welcome for people. Unlike churches, we don’t really have a place to welcome people to. This isn’t just because no one wants to be welcomed into the hospital. Often we are trying to create a welcome outside  whatever mess people find themselves inside. We welcome out: we go out of our comfort zones so we can meet people where they are, in their discomfort zones.

I had a really hard time with this at first. I put this down to being an introvert—despite all the great press we’ve been getting lately, it is still the case that meeting new people exhausts our energy reserves. So a job where I meet new people over and over every day—and I don’t get to keep the old ones!—is kind of a special hell. (“Good,” my supervisor said. “You can relate to people in the hospital. They are all in their own special hell.”)

How, I wondered, do I create a welcome when we are all in the wilderness?

Read the rest of the post here

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My fourteeners … 14 summits for ’14

??????????????????????????Mountaineers celebrate bagging summits, and in the U.S. climbers have a particular affinity for peaks over 14,000 feet. This image is resonating for me this morning, as I contemplate the year ahead.

I know 2014 will bring both peaks and valleys — every year does — and I want to be skillful with both. I’m figuring that starts with mindful attention. So, here are the summits I will be intentional about scaling in 2014: my 14 for ’14!

1. Get a job. Full-time, with benefits, vocationally fulfilling. Stipended SES position counts.

2. Get a journal article finished and accepted for publication.

3. Self-publish a white paper for sale through Amazon or other platform.

4. Begin writing my next book, working title God Forsaken.

5. Write and submit a book proposal for God Forsaken to at least three publishing houses.

6. Write my sections for the Gospel of Doubt book project.

7. Organize a spiritual community that feeds souls and hungry people.

8. Get married.

9. Have a wonderful honeymoon.

10. Get stronger, fitter, and healthy enough to return to running, swimming and biking. Especially running.

11. Complete a longer tri.

12. Complete 5K and 5 mile races.

13. Complete a 10K race.

14. Complete a half marathon.

How about you? What are the peaks you want to bag in ’14?

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Baker’s dozen: 13 things I learned in ’13

2013-to-20142013 was an amazing year for me, by my own happiness index if not the world’s. No, I did not get a job (though I tried, and I will.) No, I did not travel the world or make a shit-ton of money. No, I did not finish rehabbing my runnerself. But my heart was wide open to beauty and love. I got better at connecting and caring with strangers and dogs, friends and family, God and my beloved. Here’s (some of) what I learned and (some of) how all that happened.

1. Dreams deferred are like a river; you can dam them up, but water finds a way. I’ve been dreaming of a different kind of church and how I want to be part of it for a long time. It hasn’t happened yet. But, like a river moving through a desert toward the sea, I’ve come through a long period of dryness and I can sense the delta opening ahead. In the meantime, I continue to experience a time-and-space-traveling God reaching for me: through my past experiences and the people who were part of them and are still part of me; through the richness of this present moment and how I am learning to dwell ever more deeply in it; and yes, through the dreams that continue to call my name.

And by the sheerest grace of God, I managed to hold this dream loosely enough that I could be blessed by other people’s ideas and gifts and dreams, for me and with me. River life … open to what falls in. That’s the life for me.

2. About that perennial student thing … “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” [Cue rueful laughter.] When I finished my Ph.D., I was okay with being done with the student side of the academic waltz. Long story short, full employment has not come calling. Surprising plot twist: When I did a unit of clinical pastoral education last summer as part of what I hoped would be a path back into parish ministry, I found that I (a) enjoyed the CPE process a lot, and (b) I was kind of good at it. So now I find myself looking at a process for becoming a trainer of chaplains, called Supervisory Education. Sounds dangerously like being a student again. For three more years.

On the one hand, I can feel rather bitter and self-judgmental about this. (Not really interested in paying dues in yet another field, thank you very much.)

On the other hand, I am a lifetime learner, and I particularly love learning about God, other peoples, and my own inner workings (see 6-13 below); so I will probably actually enjoy this process. Which hopefully will lead to full employment … this happens to be a field where positions outnumber qualified position holders. (And I am interested in that.)

So, yeah. I should buy stock in a manufacturer of #2 pencils.

And celebrate making a way … a joyful way … out of what looks like no way.

3. Slow learner. This is not intentionally related to the point above, but then again … Well, let’s just say it takes some of us a long time to grow into ourselves. (There are worse things. Like NOT growing into ourselves.) I have decided I am going to embrace my tree-like nature and just keep growing rings as I move through the awe and awww and ahhh of life.

Child (of God). Questioner. Writer. Lover. Worker. Mother. Pastor. Lesbian. Theologian. Professor. Chaplain as witness/mystic/pioneer.

What’s next? Can’t wait.

4. “I knew that.” Round one: I am around ten years old. I have a thought I am excited enough about to write down. I vividly remember the moment, the thought, and the writing. I was sitting in my bedroom, looking out at the trees, and writing in a top-spiral memo pad with a line down the middle that I had liberated from my father’s desk. I was thinking – probably because of my mother’s gender non-conformity – about how women had some traits that were like men, and men had some traits that were like women. And that that was actually pretty cool, and made us more completely human. I was ten, y’all. Maybe eleven. That was some serious shit right there. I was intrigued enough with the idea to want to get it all down, and clearly.

And I am excited enough about the idea and that I had written it down that I showed it to my mother. Maybe on some wishful-girl-child level I was hoping she would recognize what I was trying to say, and have something of her own to say about it. (Maybe even help me to understand what she was … what I might be.)

She asked me where I had copied this down from. And did not believe me when I said I had written it myself. (Backhanded compliments feel like what they are … the back of a hand.)

Round two: My brother is 14 and smokes dope regularly enough that 12-year-old me is worried. I ask him why he smokes. “Because it helps me feel better.” He explains what he says I don’t know: how hard high school is, how lonely he can feel, what a bummer it is when a girl won’t talk to you.I say what I do know: “I think pain like that burns a hole in your heart that can fill up with love and happiness. If you don’t have the pain, you won’t get the happy.”

We both struggled to get out of our adolescence alive. But at least I knew that much.

Round ∞: Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote Slow Words. I was reminded of it when I read Frank Bruni’s For 2014, Tweet Less, Read More in the New York Times.

Not sure what the takeaway is … either “Believe in yourself, dammit!” or “Get a PR person, dammit!”

I think I’ll go with “Believe, sweetheart. That’s some good shit right there.”

5. Bad theology hurts: people, planets, and God. For awhile I kept a folder in my email program titled Bad Internet Theology. After 20 months of chaplaining – also known as “Pastoring People Through the Valley of the Shadow of ______” – I realize the Internet is just a venue for spreading Bad Theology. Bad theology is made of incomplete thinking, power maintenance, crappy Bible reading, and a sheer lack of the most elemental love.

Most people don’t have the time or interest to spend three or four years getting an M.Div. and another five (or more) getting a Ph.D. in theology. Quite normal and perfectly acceptable. So, here are two simple tips for “most people,” which, honestly, I wish more pastors would adhere to so they wouldn’t do so much harm to their sheep.

Tip 1: If you wouldn’t do it to your kids, God probably wouldn’t do it to you. Stop. Engage brain and heart. Stop regurgitating to maintain security at expense of compassion. (I know, this is too anthropormorphic and dangerously reductive, but at least it should stop most of the “God killed Jesus because we did bad things,” and “God let your baby die because He needed another angel in heaven.”)

Tip 2: Actually read your Bible if you are going to think you are quoting it, and consider that it is 2000-5000 year old wisdom. I.e., don’t repeat things it doesn’t say,* don’t believe everything it does say literally (do you subscribe to 5000 year old dentistry? No? I rest my case …), and consider that humanity and the divine may have learned something in 2000-5000 years. I know I have, and it’s only taken me 50 years. How about you?

*The one canard I must dismantle: how many times have I heard someone utter in confounded tones: “Well, God said He** wouldn’t give us more than we could handle.” Sometimes followed by a rueful “I wish He didn’t trust me so much.” The verse people are actually referring to is 1 Corinthians 10:13, where Paul says “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” Note that Paul is talking about temptation, not grief, trauma, oppressions … the many human experiences that approach and exceed the endurable. And, oh, by the way, the only response to a human experience that is not endurable is companionship. To not be abandoned and left alone in our deepest and most unendurable valleys. To wit, chaplain.

** Yes, I use the capitalized masculine pronoun when spouting Bad Theology … because all Bad Theology uses masculine pronouns. Indeed, in my book, it’s a dead giveaway. (Real dead.)

6. People tend to die they way they lived. And people tend to handle death and the death of a loved one the way they handled life and/or life with that loved one. If people have learned some grace, calm, compassion, respect … these will be in evidence at the deathbed of their loved one. If the family dynamic is all about control and “I am making this about me even though it’s you that’s getting born/having a birthday/anniversary/getting a job/other life event” then the deathbed scene will probably play that out as well.

Now, I want to offer a caveat here. I have only been with a couple of people who got to die at home, with hospice or other support. Most of the deaths I have attended have been in the hospital. And that is not a natural death. We get in the way, with our machines and interventions. But a lot of the people who die in the hospital die there because they were not in charge of their lives enough to ensure that did not happen. Or their families did not have the resources or nerve or knowledge of how to create a better death. That’s really sad.

If you are interested in not having that happen to you, holler. I can help. Or if you don’t know me/don’t want to talk to me about it, consider deathoverdinner.org or something similar. Please.

7. You can’t give what you don’t have. I have learned this over and over again, and I can’t complain, because every time I learn it, my universe expands. Literally. In every direction. Every one of these is the headline for a whole journey in an of itself:

You can’t feel compassion for others if you don’t feel it for yourself.

You can’t extend grace to others if you are not extending it to yourself.

You can’t love other people if you don’t love yourself.

Are you wondering how this fits into the “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” thing? Good. Comment, please?

8. Buddhism + Christianity = Love. I think Robert Thurman was right when he pointed out that Buddha had 40+ years to work out his techniques, and Jesus only had about 3 years. So, yeah … the more I learn about metta/lovingkindness, self compassion and radical acceptance, the more I find that helps me be a more human being and a Christian. (No, I have not read Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, but it’s on my list!) There are some things that keep me in the Christian camp — the incarnation, mainly — but I’m grateful for what book-based dharma has brought me.

9. The statute of limitations may have run out on your childhood. But you can get the love now you needed then. If you are a recent parent, or know recent parents, you may have heard/read about attachment parenting. The idea is to create a secure base for your child, so they can move out into the world, knowing there is love for them back home. It starts in infancy and gets grounded through toddlerhood and childhood. If you don’t get secure attachment, and many of us don’t, you may not be able to ever completely fill that bucket.

But! You can fill it some. Having a stable and secure relationship with a healthy friend, lover or counselor can help you rewire your attachments and learn deeper trusting and trustworthiness, loving and lovableness. (Yes, those are very different kinds of relationships with different intents and boundaries, and yes, each of those kinds of relationships has the potential to enable you to rewire your attachments.) I learned more about this in Robert Karen’s Becoming Attached. Fascinating and somewhat helpful, though you may find it on the long side.

10. Good news: you have three brains. Bad news: they don’t have a good connection. But thanks to recent research into neurobiology, you can – see above – do some new wiring. You may have heard of your “reptilian brain”: i.e., the part of your brain wired for fight, flight sex, or eating anything handy because you are hungry (including your babies, well, because hungry). This is the earliest-to-evolve brain that we do in fact share with reptiles.

Then there’s the mammalian or limbic brain, the second to evolve brain which we share with mammals and which is where our emotions live, and which is why we don’t eat our babies, because cute and love.

Finally, there’s the neocortical brain, which is where we do math and logic, so we can figure out that too many babies is in fact not cute or love and that sometimes hungry is necessary. For a while.

Downside? Because they evolved at different points in our history and (if I remember right) actually have different cellular structures, these three brains don’t have great wiring among them, so – for instance – sometimes the fight gets to fist without connecting with feeling or (wise) words.

Upside? We can increase the wiring among the brains with our thinking. Frequently and intentionally and differently. Frequently thought thoughts become neural pathways that can be grooved into easier access. Intentionally thought thoughts become intentionally grooved pathways that improve our feeling and thinking. Differently thought thoughts can become patterns and values that improve behaving and living. (Step one? Awareness meditation. Sit. Breathe. Repeat as needed.)

Good resources here include Love 2.0 and A General Theory of Love.

11. Introverts FTW! This blog post is getting really long. Let me just say Susan Cain. And that I have come to love my introverted temperament even more, that I can extrovert myself when I have to, and that sometimes I can enjoy it (!) and have that extroversion enrich my life. See 10 and 12.

12. Deep calls to deep; just not using words. See 10 again, and note that the limbic brain is not only the seat of our emotions, it is NOT the brain for language or talking, which is why images and music and art and smells bring up our feels, usually by surprise and accident. (Although this is something we can cultivate, by meditating with images or music or art — not too sure about smells — and reflecting on what they bring up.)

It’s also the place where we literally, emotionally, and sensorially connect with other human beings: babies, lovers, friends. Feels are contagious, right? Our agitation can agitate another person, and our sense of calm can calm another person. If you cultivate your ability to do this, in micromoments of eye contact and friendly or meaningful interaction, you will improve not only the quality of your life, but also quantitative measures of health (including every system in your body: cardiac health, blood pressure, stress levels, endocrine systems, everything! Talk about a life hack!). This is what’s being called interpersonal neurobiology. Interested? See Love 2.0 (silly name, great book) by Barbara Frederikson. I am planning to write about how this links up with mysticism and theology, so please don’t beat me to it.

13. Your kids and other people you learn with, live with and love with will make many of the mistakes you made, and some brand news ones of their very own (that you see coming), and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. I have learned to learn, and come to realize I have a lot left to learn about learning with others. But I’m hopeful … and with the roll of the odometer, I am thankful for a little more time and plenty of room to roam!

What about you? What did 2013 teach you? What are you hoping for in 2014?

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Advent journal: love incarnate

On the night you were born
you’d already been here a while
infinitely long as divinity
almost nine months
in finitude.

On the night you were born
I don’t imagine you knew
your universe had shrunk
from interstellar starshine
to blood-washed womb.

But on the night you were born
you did know warmth:
a heat you had never felt before,
and would never forget,
no matter how strong that tiny heart grew.

On the night you were born
you changed everything
and you let everything
change you.

Immanu-el.

God with us.

Amen

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Advent journal: Joy in pursuit of … us?

Finding joy ...

Finding joy …

I wonder if you have to reach a certain age before you can know the difference between happiness and joy … if the years and experiences have to pile up beyond your ability to make sense of them, leaving you — and leading you — to wonder.

I have heard it said that happiness is situational, but joy can be felt regardless of circumstances — indeed, can arise in the worst of circumstances, because of deeply held values, meaningful commitments and sacrifices, paramount relationships, and especially the realization of connectedness and commonwealth.

In the United States, our Declaration of Independence asserts that

all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Maybe herein lies another way to approach the difference between happiness and joy. The best we humans could imagine at the point of our nation’s birth was that each man had the right to pursue happiness. Maybe our Creator imagines something different: joy pursuing usall of us. Through everything. In the most unexpected places.

Joy arising like an enlightened man, unfolding from beneath a bodhi tree.

Joy arising like a new shoot from a long-ago-chopped stump.

Joy arising like a best friend, days dead in his grave.

Joy arising like calligraphy flowing from a pen, taking divine dictation.

Joy arising like desert mothers and fathers, holy fools amid solitude’s struggles.

It is the joy that arises in unexpected places, even in the midst of misery, that holds the sharpest tang. This I know for true after a year and more of chaplaincy: work I did not choose and did not want, but that turned keys in my heart and unlocked joy.

Joy is what happens when I am sitting with a woman whose child has just died and even in her grief and mine there is a deep recognition that we are not alone, and that there is something life-giving in having loved so deeply and completely that grief can rend one wide open.

Joy is what happens when I am praying with a little old man and we open our eyes and he grins and sings a threefold amen and calls me darlin’.

Joy is what happens when a woman facing a cancer diagnosis, whose faith is not adequate to the abyss before her, somehow finds comfort in the steadiness of my gaze and my assurance that she is not and will not be forsaken.

Joy is what happens every time the something more arises within us and among us and between us, as hearts share what none can bear alone, whether happiness or grief, birth or death, love or loss … joy is the happiness in the grief, the new beginning in the midst of death, and the love piercing every loss.

Whether arising in the sweet or the bitter, though, the one thing that is sure about joy is that we can’t hold on to it, any more than we can hold onto the last echoes of a song, the last tendrils of fragrance, the hem of a garment.

We can only live in such a way that joy will, someday, arise among us once more … as it always has, and as it surely will.

Weeping may linger for a night,
but joy comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:5

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