Is this answered prayer?

Praying people

Praying people

This is the time I have been working and hoping for; this is also the time I have been anticipating looking back from. I left full-time employment in 1997, and — an M.Div. and Ph.D. notwithstanding — have only worked part-time since. I have been blessed to have the financial and emotional support of loved ones; I know this time could have been even harder. And yet, seeking full-time employment since 2009 and not finding it has been hard enough. In the last year alone, I made the short list for five jobs and did not get one.

Until this one. I am happy to say that UNC Hospitals has taken me on, in a weird kind of studenty-work called Supervisory Education. It is a transitional path that takes one from clinical pastoral education (CPE) and chaplaincy to becoming an ACPE-certified supervisor of persons in CPE. So, it’s sort of a job in that you are doing chaplaincy as well as on-the-job training to become a supervisor and drawing a stipend; and it’s still an education and training path.

I could be bent out of shape over the low pay or the studenty status — demeaning for a Ph.D.? Or I could be grateful to have full-time, meaningful work with pay and affordable benefits that is in line with my vocation, that will both challenge and feed my spirit.

I choose gratitude. Gratitude has been my life-raft through the long white-water stretch of unemployment. During the time when I was underemployed, I did find some work here and there, and I did get some writing done, but most importantly, I think, I had time to wonder, “How do I want to look back on this time?” and to try to live into the answers.

I knew at some point the job search would end; I intended it to end this year. I would either find full-time employment in my field, or move on to some kind of secular job. At that point, when I looked back on the time between, how would I feel? Would the time I spent feeling anxious feel like wasted time? Would I feel that I had used the time like a well-earned sabbatical, learning and resting and growing and preparing?

I knew how I wanted to feel; I knew how I wanted to have spent the time. And it was hard to stay in gratitude for the time off when I wanted to be working, feeling fulfilled and like I was contributing to our family. I was and am so fortunate: my beloved often reminded me that I was contributing. My kids grew old enough to be grateful for the time I had given them.

When this position came available, I did everything I could think of to prepare not only for the interview but to accept it should it be offered. Knowing I would not be able to care for my hot mess of a puppy, I found Bo an excellent new home with stay-at-home people who had other dogs and a fenced yard and who loved him on sight.

And, knowing time for a wedding would be hard to come by after I started working, my beloved and I took the time to get married in Pennsylvania. News I had gotten this job came the day before our wedding day: I can’t fully describe the relief I felt in that moment, the joy. To feel that I would be able to keep my promises, to be completely unencumbered by doubt and grief going into this sparkling day, to have this joy to share — so much yes!

So, dear reader, I put the question to you. Where in all of that was the answer to prayer?

Was I some kind of good person who had worked and struggled long enough, and God threw me a bone? The job was the answer to my prayers?

I have to say, no. I don’t think so. I don’t believe so.

If I have said that I do not believe in a puppeteer God who gives people cancer or takes their babies because heaven needs another angel, then I also have to say I do not believe in a God who gives people jobs.

Where, then, was the answer to my prayers?

Do I even believe there is such a thing as answers to prayers?

I know I don’t know who or what God is. I can only perceive in limited ways. So, here is a limited perception. My tradition tells me that God is love. Recent interpreters of my tradition have told me that what we call “God” is more a verb, than a noun … so, it’s more accurate to say “Godding is loving,” than to say “God is Love.”

I have perceived this loving in the support I felt from people around me, tangibly and intangibly.

I have perceived this loving as the instinct arising within me to turn from my anxiety over what wasn’t toward gratitude for what was and is.

I have perceived this loving as the strength given to me to keep my heart open — to strangers, to oppressed and hurting people, to my children, to my beloved, to God — even as my apertures kept trying to close down to keep out the pain and fear and loss that fills the world around me, and that my own psyche manufactures.

These have been answers to prayer. These have been the oils of gladness that have kept my scarred heart supple enough to open to the joy of today.

May you find your prayers answered, with whatever you need to keep your heart open to live and love another day.

Posted in Clinical Pastoral Education, Dogs, Doubt, Love, Parenting, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Called to Unbelief

Fishermen at Sea by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Fishermen at Sea by Joseph Mallord William Turner

Sermon for Binkley Baptist Church:
Psalm 85 * Romans 10:5-15 * Matthew 14:22-33

I had the pleasure this week of Bible study with some members of the Binkley Sermon Shapers group, and when we read the story of Peter and Jesus and the boat and the water, one of the regulars, Paul, grinned and said “You got a hard one! Walking on water? It’s a little unbelievable.”

Exactly. This story does to us the very thing it’s about. It creates disbelief. But then, that’s what stories do. More than just informing us, they perform something, in us.

The stories in Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss are like that. After finding faith and love at midlife, Wiman is diagnosed with incurable cancer in the middle of the finding. As a result, in his words:

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 call me at another to sing of godlessness. I think it may be the case that God calls some people to unbelief in order that faith can take new forms.

Doubt as a calling; can we imagine such a thing? Maybe. Will you pray with me?

May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. May our believing and our doubting be fruitful in your kin-dom. Amen.

Let’s start with Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he is encouraging the mostly Gentile community in Rome to understand how Gentiles and Jews are now grafted together in Christ as the new people of God. Paul invites his fellow Jews to experience Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the law. Gentiles are invited to know Jesus – the One who lived and died and that God raised from the dead – to know this Jesus Christ as Lord of all. God’s Word has come near you, Paul says. When it is in your heart, and on your lips, you will be saved.

In your heart and on your lips. As the sermon shapers pointed out, this is deeply intimate language. Like the words of our psalm … righteousness and peace will kiss. But intimacy can only be experienced in relationship. Which takes trust.

Which is the language I love, when it comes to talking about faith, and doubt. Because faith is not just intellectual assent, for me. Rather, when I am strong in my faith, I am trusting in my relationship with God. And I am on solid ground with this understanding: the word used in the Greek New Testament for “believe” in the context of faith also can be translated “trust.”

When I doubt, it is not a matter of disbelief in God, but rather a dis-trust of my relationship with God. Literally. Dissing my trust in God. I am dismissing the reality of God’s everlasting love for me. I am derelict in the practices that keep me in the presence of Love, Love’s own self, and the differences those practices make in the quality of my life and my love for this world. That’s doubt. Not faith’s opposite … but maybe on a continuum with faith … maybe one element of a human faith.

So, what are we to do, when we doubt? Because we do doubt. Let’s look again at the story of Peter and Jesus and the boat and the storm. We all have storms, and Jesus … and – if we are lucky – a boat.

Jesus knows the disciples are going to need a boat to get to the other side …. So after he and the disciples and 5000 other people eat supper together, the story says Jesus immediately puts the disciples in a boat and sends them to the other side of the lake. And Jesus goes up on the mountain to pray … perhaps continuing to grieve the murder of his cousin, John the Baptist. Perhaps asking God for the strength to keep going. Maybe even asking God for a reason to keep going.

Evening falls, and Jesus spends the night on the mountain. Meanwhile, on the lake, a storm is brewing, and the wind is beating against the disciples’ boat. Early in the morning, Jesus comes walking toward the disciples in their boat. They see Jesus, and they think he is a ghost. I wonder … a ghost in general? Or do they think, “You know, for a minute there, I thought that was Jesus. But no one with a body can walk on water … maybe he’s dead and that’s his spirit, his ghost!”

And they freak out. As any rational person would. But immediately Jesus speaks to them and says “Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid.” Now things are getting interesting. Let’s slow down and take this frame by frame.

“Take heart …” in other words, take courage. Take love. Take hold of the intimacy of our relationship, in which you can trust.

Because “it is I …” in other words, this is “I AM …” speaking to you. I mean, who else comes moving over the face of the waters? In saying “it is I” as he moves over the face of the waters, could Jesus send any clearer message? “I am full of the Spirit of the Living God, the one present at creation, who brought life out of the waters of chaos. You don’t need to be afraid.”

Slow motion, now.

Peter says, “Lord, if it is you …”

I think this is one of the most complex and human phrases in the Bible. Peter calls Jesus Lord, an expression of faith and a recognition of authority. And then says “if it is you …” which is all doubt and challenge and conditions. Where is Peter going with this?

“… Command me to come to you on the water.”

Now, here I think we have a problem. Peter is asking Jesus to be a puppeteer, a magician, a power-wielder … all temptations Jesus has already overcome. As for walking on water? Well, let’s review.

Ruach, the rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters … check. That would be God the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 77, “your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.” Yep, that would be God the Creator.

Matthew 14 verse 25, Jesus walking toward the disciples over the water? Yes, by the mystery of the incarnation, that’s God, too.

So, really, Peter? You know it’s Jesus. Are you not trusting Jesus to be Jesus? Or is it that you want to be God?

It is tempting. When our lives, or the life of someone we love, are at risk in the waters of chaos, we might think we’d like to have the powers of God. We might think, I could do a better job. We might think, I need to climb out of this boat and get right into the middle of that chaos because then I could fix it. Or at least get the heck out of here.

I’m thinking Jesus could have explained all this to Peter. But he has already told Peter what he needs to know. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” So he doesn’t explain or remind Peter of anything. He just says, “Come.”

And Peter gets out of the boat, which, okay, takes some faith, and starts walking toward Jesus, but when he notices the wind, he gets scared and starts to sink and cries out, “Lord! Save me!”

And immediately – have you noticed this is the third immediately in this story? Immediately Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Seems a little harsh … I mean, isn’t this the same Jesus who said something about a mustard seed? A little bit of yeast? There must be more going on with Jesus than we can really see. Remember all those immediatelys. Jesus is feeling some urgency. And I don’t think it’s because of the storm, at least not the one around the boat. After all, John was just murdered. Jesus isn’t going to change his approach or his message just because a similar message got John killed. So, yeah. Maybe it matters to Jesus right now that his disciples have a clue.

Not about walking on water, though … If Jesus needed his followers to walk on water, he would have stood Peter up in the waves and called the other disciples out to join him. But that’s not what happened. What happened? Jesus and Peter climb back into the boat, and the wind ceased. Leaving the sheer silence, in which God can be.

“And those in the boat worshipped Jesus, saying “Truly, you are the Son of God.”

Now, this is necessary information. In Matthew’s gospel, and in Paul’s evangelism, it is necessary to recognize the identity of Jesus, his being the Christ. God’s Word has come near you, Paul says. When it is in your heart, and on your lips, you will be saved.

But I think there was something else necessary. What gets performed in the story? Jesus didn’t just pull Peter out of the water. He put him back in the boat.

You know, I got to thinking about this. Peter was already walking on the water before Jesus got there. All the disciples were. If you’re in a boat being tossed in the waves, are you sitting quietly, all prim and proper? No, I think you’re moving and working and trying to keep the boat underway, even against the wind.

Because that’s what you do in a boat. Even when your leader has put you in a boat and sent you off without him, and you are not sure you know what to do without your leader, and the boat is taking some hits, good idea no. 1 is, Stay. In. The. Boat.

Because it is keeping you afloat.

Because your friends are in the boat with you.

Because Jesus put you in it … maybe for a reason. Maybe an urgent reason.

Because the boat is the place where your doubts can drive your faith to take a new form, maybe one that someone needs.

I have a confession to make. Sometimes – okay, many times – when I should have stayed in the boat, I leapt out. And sometimes, when I should have jumped, I stayed put. In both cases, because of doubt. Because of not trusting myself, or someone else, or God.

Of course, trusting doesn’t mean there’s no risk. God may have God’s eye on the sparrow, but the sparrow still falls. Jesus learned that lesson intimately, didn’t he. In the agony of the garden, in the even greater agony of the cross, he cried out to God, feeling forsaken. And is there any worse doubt than feeling forsaken?

Maybe that’s why, in the end, as he is saying goodbye to his disciples, and handing them the commission for the work ahead, this happens, in the final verses of Matthew’s gospel:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

Some doubted … and we are just as called. In fact, some of us, as Christian Wiman says, some of us are called to unbelief, so that faith can take new forms. A different boat. A different road. A different drummer. A different song.

Some of us doubt, and our feet are just as beautiful on God’s holy mountain as any other messenger’s feet.

Some of us doubt, and Jesus promises to be with us always, to the end of the age.

Amen

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Failing graces

BuckWet black trunks, lizard-scaled and north-side mossed. Fallen pine-needle clumps, some green, the brown ones likely leftovers from the spring ice-storm, once snagged in treetops and now loosened by summer storms.

I notice these things in detail because I’m walking Bo* without treats and that means a lot of stopping and sniffing. I’ve decided these are our Zen walks; he sniffs, and I let my head fall back, my neck crane to take in the trees. Or I scan for deer poop. Because he finds it as delectable as I find it disgusting.

The deer around here are dropping fawns like pinecones. There are twins and triplets and singletons, spotted and spare and skittish. A couple of days ago I brought Bo out for his morning whizz and he saw the deer before I got his leash on and he was gone. Across the yard and through the meadow and out to the road. Fail. I hadn’t planned on an early morning sprint, but there we went. Thank goodness it was first thing in the morning and he had to stop for said whizz as he got to the road. But he was beautiful in his barking and ears-back bolting.

This is an oddly heatless summer … oh, every now and then it gets up into the 90s, but it’s been quite Portlandish, wet and cool. (August 1st, rainy, 64 degrees.) In terms of summer heat it’s a fail, I suppose, but I’m not complaining. Our trees and yards and pastures are obscenely lush and green. And the fall will likely be a riot of color … maybe summer is reinventing itself.

Another reinvention this summer: me as a writer. Writing and dogs are an interesting combination. I am okay with writing in intervals of a couple of hours here, a couple of hours there, interspersed with the hysterical and dear time-suck that is Bo*, but sermonizing … well, I need a deep-sea-dive stretch of time. My sweetheart has this fantasy of me sitting at the computer writing with Bo* stretched out near me, or in my lap. Are you laughing? If he’s not asleep, he’s not still, and if he’s near me, he’s not asleep, which means, “That’s a cute fantasy, but no.” Bo* and I do not write together. Fail. But I am getting up from the computer like I am supposed to, ergonomically. And my subconscious does get noodle-time on those Walks, so there’s that.

I am thinking about the story of Peter and the disciples in a storm-tossed boat, freaking out because Jesus comes walking over the water to them. Peter gets a big idea to ask Jesus to ask Peter to come for a wet walk in the waves. He gets a few paces in before panicking. Fail? Was it? Or was it a necessary thing? I know I’ve jumped from some boats I should have stayed in, and stayed in some I should’ve bailed out of. Looking at it from the perspective of my favorite book of the last year, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, here’s the money line:

The same impulse that leads me to sing of God
leads me to sing of godlessness ….
Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief
in order that faith may take new forms.

The list of things I don’t believe grows longer by the year … probably because for the most part that unbelief feels more like freedom than insecurity. But there are still signs and apparitions all around: cardinals darting everywhere, Carolina blue swallowtails hovering, hummingbirds thrumming, that damn puppy running, my lover’s voice on the line, a breath of wind stirring the pines and then a blow that lifts leaves and branches, lifting and stirring the threads of love wrapped round my heart.

It’s Friday evening … usually my sweetheart comes home on Thursday, so we are missing each other more fiercely than words can describe. Friday night is our favorite night of the week, so this seems a rather painful fail. But we are doing what we need to do: she is in Philadelphia working her brains out, tired to the bone. I am in North Carolina, holding down the homefront, holding on and hustling in the job search, and doing my best not to let frustrated and lonely get in the way of the very real beauty and joy all around me.

The wind in the trees has been the whisper of Spirit since I was a child. Every time I hear and feel that blow, it feels like the breath of a universe-filling love that is looking for me. That’s really all I know. I do not know what is happening in my life right now. Meaning and clarity come in the looking back. All I know right now is this is the one life I have, and I don’t want to miss a moment, just because it might be a hard one, or feel like a failure. Because if I shut down to the hard moment, the fail, I am going to miss the grace right on its heels … like a puppy chasing deer.

I shared these words with friends this week. They found them meaningful, as I do. Perhaps you will, as well:

We thrive, in part, when we have purpose, when we still have more to do. The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women sought imperfection, giving their textiles and ceramics an intended flaw called a “spirit line” so that there is a forward thrust, a reason to continue making work. Nearly a quarter of twentieth century Navajo rugs have these contrasting-color threads that run out from the inner pattern to just beyond the border that contains it; Navajo baskets and often pottery have an equivalent line called a “heart line” or a “spirit break.” The undone pattern is meant to give the weaver’s spirit a way out, to prevent it from getting trapped and reaching what we sense is an unnatural end. — Sara Lewis, The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery

This makes some sense of the restless fault line running through my life. I am not done with this life yet … and it is not done with me. May our spirits find the way out, by fault line or failure, grace or gumption.

=====

*Aka Bo-jangles, Bo-bolicious, Bo-cephus, Bo-didley, Bo-monster … it depends. He weighs a few pounds, and is both cuter and smarter than any dog needs to be.

 

Posted in Dogs, Mysticism, Nature, Spirituality | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The postmodern mystic: about time

arrow_of_time_1Time is not the straight arrow we think it is, the physicists tell us. And this is old physics; Einstein era ideas. But I got a fresh view of the notion in an interview Krista Tippett did recently with physicist Brian Greene. Here’s a snippet:

Ms. Tippett: Alright, so let’s take this very ordinary experience we think we have of time. Right? It’s just — it is, again the substance, the structure of our days as we perceive it. So, our senses tell us — tell us the story of Newton’s clockwork world, right? We, a hundred years after Einstein told us, explained that time is relative, we cannot internalize that, right? I mean, he said it’s a stubbornly persistent illusion. We have this stubbornly persistent illusion that our senses constantly reinforce that time is an arrow moving forward. It’s linear. There’s past, present, and future.

Dr. Greene: So, if you ask me, is the past gone? Yes. I would answer yes to that. You know, is my father dead? Is he gone? Yes. That is how I answer as a human being. I can try to recognize that as Einstein taught us, the past is really not gone, it is as real as the present or the future, you just have to recognize that different observers, different individuals in the universe moving at different speeds slice up reality in different ways. So, yes, I know that stuff. I teach it. I make my students answer problems and take exams on it. But if you ask me have I been able to really stitch it into the fabric of my own experience of life, no. It’s very hard. It’s very hard to overcome the day-to-day features of the world as our senses allow us to experience them.

Greene gives a long example breaking down this idea in his books, to wit: one astronaut floating along in space will experience time passing at a different rate than another who seems to be floating toward her. Actually, each person experiences the other as floating towards them, because wherever we are is both here and now. So, which person is moving, which one is still, what are their actual rates of speed relative to … what? There is no ground zero. There is only movement relative to movement … and time relative to time, which means time is an illusion. One that we live by, but an illusion nonetheless.

One of the reasons I play at trying to understand the craziness of quantum physics is that it so often hooks into my own spirituality. This notion about the fluidity of time — it being an illusion we all agree to live in for the sake of convenience and ordering our days — reminded me of a mystical experience I had several years ago, as my mother was dying.

I had learned — and practiced in prayer — the realization that a God who is present to all places can be the Place we meet others in, through prayer. A particularly vivid way to experience this place of meeting was through kything prayer, a way of visualizing the person you are praying for and meeting them in a particular place, and inviting God/Jesus/Spirit/the Divine to join you in that space.

On a particular Good Friday in North Carolina, as my mother was dying in Texas, I was deep in prayer, holding her in my mind’s eye and heart’s hand, lifting her toward God’s presence, thankful for a God who could overcome space … when I remembered having heard a description that God lives both inside and outside time, that God can be and is present to all moments in time, even those we experience as past and future.

I realized that this meant I could pray to God about moments — and for people — on days long gone by. I sank into a deep reverie, praying for Jesus in his experience of Good Friday, among others.

Weird? I suppose. But more and more I am beginning to accept the shape of my life: that of a postmodern Christian mystic. I don’t so much argue for the existence of God as claim an experience I know as God. Because I was raised as a Christian person in a certain time and place, there are words and rituals I tend to use; because I live in a time when spiritual and religious experience is both exploding and imploding, I am continuously learning new words and ways of being with what I experience as the Spirit of Love that pervades all. (More on that soon …)

Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century, the wrong place … but then I think maybe I am right where and when I need to be. As Catholic theologian and Buddhist Paul Knitter reflects:

Karl Rahner, one of the most respected Catholic theologians of the past century (and my teacher!), recognized this need in a statement that has been repeated broadly: “In the future Christians will be mystics, or they will not be anything.” … When Buddha refused to talk about God in order to make way for the experience of Enlightenment, he was making the same point, but even more forcefully, that Rahner was getting at in his insistence that Christians must be mystics: “God” must be an experience before “God” can be a word.

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“The downside of the wave …”

DoubtAttentionI’ve been hip-deep in doubt the last few months, writing chapters for a book on doubt and living through my own doubts as I apply for jobs I do not get. I’ve given some thought to how I’ll look back at this time. If I get a job I love, it will be “Whoo-hoo! Yay, God! Yay, me! Yay, job!”

And if I don’t? Is there still a whoo-hoo in the looking back? Is there a whoo-hoo in this very moment?

I’ve hesitated to speak of this, because I’m riding through this in-between time in a pretty sweet saddle and I know so many people who have it so much worse. How can I complain? My family and I are healthy and strong; my beloved is glad to support us, whether with love or laughter or lament.

And yet … it is a struggle to feel gifted for and a desire to work and not find a community calling for those gifts. Not to mention unemployment sucks. And every day adds another piranha to the school of suckyfish nibbling away at your identity, belief in yourself and your worth.

In the midst of this comes an invitation to preach at a church that’s between pastors. I love to preach, so this is good news. I wish I got to preach every week, but I do my best not to let that take the fun out of the invitations and opportunities that do come. I have a lovely ritual for beginning the process: I look at the texts for the week, copy them all onto a single page, get out my colored pencils, take a deep happy breath and dive in, reading and writing and praying all over the words. Joy joy joy …

One silver lining to the intermittent nature of my preaching is that when I do get the invitation, I get to experience the lectionary lottery: what texts will come up in the worship calendar for that week? How will they speak to me, and to the given community, the given place, the given time? Gift gift gift …

So, let me end your suspense. The gospel reading for August 10 (yeah, I see no need to wait when I can be diving in!) is Matthew 14:22-33, the story of Peter walking on the water with Jesus and getting a little — okay, completely — wet. And Jesus saying, “You of little faith; why did you doubt?”

Leaving aside for the moment the spectacularly unhelpful nature of that remark, let’s just sit with these factoids: I’ve been writing about doubt and faith for months. I have been working through my own issues about doubt and faith. I will be preaching for a church that can’t help but be working through issues of doubt and faith, to a bunch of people who can’t help but have been wounded by this notion that times of suckiness have to do with a lack of faith, and the presence of doubt. (Which may not have been Jesus’ message, but sure has become the message of way too many churches.) We are all of us at sea.

I love it when shit comes together. But I’m not even done yet. Here’s the lagniappe.

As I’m sitting and reading and writing my “first read” of the text, I remember this song called “Walking Over the Water” by Mat Kearney, from the compilation album Mercyland: Hymns for the Rest of Us. It came out a few years ago, and I wish there were about 27 more just like it. Not that I like all the songs but at least none of them are coming from or headed in the-same-old-direction. [Note: interwebz reveal there's a Mercyland 2 on the way. Yay!]

As I listened to the album, the music in “Walking” drew me in first, and then I began to catch snatches of the lyrics, but I wasn’t sure I was hearing what I thought I was hearing. “I need to pull up those lyrics and make sure,” I thought more than once. But I never got around to it.

So, today I Googled the song and read the lyrics and then noticed a blog post written by the album’s producer, Phil Madeira, about the experience of writing the song with Mat Kearney. It’s a lovely post, with this bit of musing toward the end:

Life is happening all around us, joy, love, happiness, prosperity, victory, yet not excluding death, loss, failure, sadness. I wonder what it’s like to be thankful on downside of the wave.

Did the universe just go “booonnnggg”? Or, was that only in my head?

Dear Tammerie,

Please write a few words about the downside of the wave.
Oh, and there’s your sermon title. You’re welcome.

Love,
Mat, Phil and the Holy Spirit

I do know a little bit about the downside of the wave, enough to know that being thankful is a big part of how you survive to climb the next swell. When the crap gets deep, I feel the feelings and then reach out for the both/and. Yes, this is sucky, and I feel both sad it’s happening and glad for what I am grateful for and glad that I can feel the gratitude.

That’s whoo-hoo worthy enough for today. I don’t want to miss a bit of this life in the waiting and working for whatever’s next: I want to feel all the pain of what isn’t so that I can feel all the joy of what is, now and in the days to come. I want to connect through that pain to other people who are hurting, and try to be a blessing to them. I want to feel the love of the family and friends around me, and yes, the love of and for the Holy God who I feel most whole with and in.

/climbs out of boat

/gets really wet

/takes deep happy breath and keeps swimming

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Intersectionality for a Justice-Hungry People

WG LogoRoots of Justice (an anti-oppression training organization I have the privilege of working with) was invited to the Wild Goose Festival to offer a couple of workshops on intersectionality, an approach to understanding the way oppressions interlock and reinforce each other. Understanding intersectionality is important because it underlies unjust realities faced by people experiencing oppression on more than one front; also, coalitions can use that understanding to more realistically and effectively address the injustices and violence people face as a result of those interlocking oppressions.

We found people who were hungry for a deeper understanding of these ideas, and how intersectionality underlies the work for justice toward liberation. Building on our own experiences as well as case studies of such coalitions as the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina and southern freedom organizations like S.O.N.G., we helped participants to explore their own contexts, identify opportunities for more intersectional work, and explore how the work of those who have gone before us can illuminate our own challenges. In the first workshop we explored how each of us experiences a variety of social locations, some that empower us and some that disempower us, but all of which offer points of connection and potential for relationship and justice work. In the second workshop, we went deeper into our own settings and talked about the power of visibility, spirituality, the friendship paradox, and other aspects of intersectional work.

No single injustice can be undone in isolation; we all have much to learn from our foremothers in the struggle — the Combahee River Collective including Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Maya Angelou, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Chela Sandoval, Andrea Smith, Kwok Pui Lan — whose collective and collaborative struggles have left wisdom for us in their wake. I’m so grateful, too, to the trainers of Roots of Justice, especially Regina Shands Stoltzfus and Conrad Moore, with whom I had the chance to work this week.

Here are a few images from the time we spent together. May strong shoots of action and friendship grow from these roots. And please know that we’d be happy to talk with you about what’s happening in your organization … and if you’d like to organize an intersectional workshop, please contact Phil Morice Brubaker at <roots@rootsofjusticetraining.org>.

Session2participantstalking Session2Regina  Session1Tam

Tam&Conrad

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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.

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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.

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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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