Improv (for) life, listening for justice

photo credit: Getty Images

photo credit: Getty Images

Whether we are facing personal conflict in our relationships, or leaning into the harder conversations of our society – like those around racial injustice and sexual identity – many of us struggle to listen to what needs hearing and speaking what needs saying.

Listening is a core competency for me as a pastor and chaplain, but I am finding listening also can be a revolutionary and democratic act: revolutionary in the sense that it can lead to transformation, and democratic in the sense that it is a responsibility that attends the right we claim to free speech. As Jacob Needleman sagely put it:

Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?

I agree with Needleman’s thinking, and I also know I find all kinds of ways to not listen and not let the other’s thought into my mind, particularly when I disagree — or think I am going to disagree — with the speaker. (Of course, some “conversations” need to be shut down. But when they don’t, continuing to engage can feel stressful or even scary.)

I’ve found help in a couple of places. One help comes from the SAVI (System for Analyzing Verbal Interaction) approach to communications analysis, which suggests a way of engaging conflicted communication. In the SAVI approach, a controversial statement is met by the listener finding and naming three positives in what they’ve heard, and then opening up with a broad question.

This reminded me of the technique I learned at DSI Comedy for working with an improv partner’s offering: three key ways of doing “yes, and …” builds. To build on or heighten your statement (“We like ice cream!”) I can add a detail, emotion, or consequence of your statement.

Detail: “Yes, we like ice cream, especially chocolate!”

Emotion: “Yes, we like ice cream so much, we love it more than anything!”

Consequence: “Yes, we like ice cream so much, and if we don’t get it, we’re not happy.”

As you can imagine, these are also ways to connect in a situation of conflicted communication, when you might be hard put to identity three positives about a controversial statement or one you personally disagree with. This is common for me in my chaplaincy work, where I often hear a theologically tinged statement that I can’t agree with (but which it would not be helpful to critique in that moment). It is also common for me in political conversations. Here are a couple of examples.

Many times when someone is in a crisis situation, their reliance on their faith background may lead them to say things like, “I know this is part of God’s plan.” This can be heartbreaking when said in the wake of a life-threatening diagnosis, injury or even death. But I can’t just disagree; that would be like taking away a patient’s oxygen. So, how can I engage? Right. Three builds and an open question or invitational question … which might look like this:

“I hear you relying on God in this painful time.” (detail) “I am glad your faith is helping you.” (emotion) “This is such a tough situation; I might be having a hard time accepting it’s God’s plan.” (consequence) “Can you tell me more about how you are feeling?” (open-ended question)

I feel more connected to the person I am listening to – in the way Needleman describes – when I take this approach; I certainly have not shut them down or shut them out. Our conversation has a chance to continue; we may even get somewhere that may provide more comfort to the person.

This approach can work in situations of greater conflict in values, attitudes or behaviors, even situations where someone says or does something offensive or unjust. For instance, if you are in conversation where someone says something racist or sexist, one approach is to just call them on it. Sometimes the relationship (or lack of a relationship) may mean you need more nuance. Or maybe it’s just hard for you to speak up in these situations, and this structure can help you.

For instance, you may have heard comments like these recently: “I’m so tired of all this ‘black lives matter’ stuff, and crap about the Confederate flag. I mean, really, can we stop overreacting?”

If you wanted to use this technique, your reply might look like this …

“I can hear you’re tired of hearing about racial injustice.” (detail) “I can only imagine how tired people of color are, of bearing the brunt of our racist society.” (emotion) “I see people, African Americans and trans people of color in particular, pay with their lives … and I feel the need to respond, though I don’t always know how.” (consequence) “I wonder who you listen to about these issues?” (open ended question)

The point is to find places where you can identify a detail, feeling or consequence in their statement, or in your own stance.

Which, of course, means you first need to listen. I did not know when I took my first class how fundamental listening is to good improv. In fact, it is the heart of the game. When the leader calls out, “Players, are you ready?” … the unspoken part of the question is, “… to listen?”

And in listening, to hear each other into our truer, better, more joy-full selves.

Yes! And … ?

Posted in Clinical Pastoral Education, Justice, Politics, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Week of Righteous Resistance

SURJ_color_logoShowing Up for Racial Justice is an organizing/activist group I follow and support. The following is drawn from a response they have developed for white people of faith against the burning of black churches; I hope you’ll find it useful. Let’s do everything we can to interrupt and prevent the next assault on black humanity.

SURJ is co-sponsoring the national  Week of Righteous Resistance (WORR) beginning this Sunday, July 12th and ending on Saturday, July 18th.  Please join us and our partners at the PICO Network and others by organizing or participating in one or more of the actions this week, found in this new Action Kit for White Communities of Faith.  It includes resources from 15 faith traditions as well as resources for participating in the week of action.

Our focus continues to be on centering black leadership in this moment and engaging more white people in moving from what do I do (individually) as a white person to how can we, as white people, collectively be showing up and dismantling anti-black racism and white supremacy. Please join with faith and lay leaders in this week fo action and use these resources to bring our whole selves into this struggle for our shared liberation.

In struggle —

Dara, Sam, Meta and the whole SURJ team

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No cheap grace

The key to life abundant, y'all ...

Old idea. New struggle every day.

Most of us are struck by the words Emanuel AME members speak to Dylann Roof, words that speak peace to the man who killed their loved ones, words that attempt to redeem pain by the example of a loving and suffering savior.

Without a doubt, offering this grace came at a significant cost: to rise out of the ashes of pain and show lovingkindness in this moment was an expression of the faith that has saved the lives of these people, and given meaning to years of racist oppression as well as the strength to continue to bear it.

As a white person, I don’t want to hear those words of forgiveness and feel anything more or less than called to rise to my own work: which is not to demonize Roof as so very different from me, but to understand the roots of white supremacy in the ground of my being, and continue to do my best to pull them out.

I don’t want to hear those words and think they mean I am okay and I can live my white life, without wondering every day what I can do today — not to merit that grace, but to keep from cheapening it.

The Christian faith I share with these saints not only offers grace and forgiveness, but calls me to do something with that grace and forgiveness. What am I forgiven for? How is my graced life meant to transform? Where will my love for these neighbors and the God who created us show up?

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Rachel Dolezal, Dylann Roof … and us

rachel roof

What does an impersonator of blackness have in common with a white supremacist?

Warped white responses to the racialized reality we live in. One rejected the white race card she was dealt and wrapped herself in an appropriated black life; the other rejected the humanity and right to life of black people.

White people, let’s not kid ourselves. Let’s not be distracted by psychological evaluation of these particular pathologies. Let’s wake up and realize racism is our problem, and we are only shades of denial away from this kind of crazy on the continuum that is white supremacist culture. Until we get a critical awareness of this reality and take responsibility for transforming it, these insanities will only continue, because they arise from a craziness embedded in our very soil, air, water, history.

I am too brokenhearted tonight to say more than that … I have written so many words, so many blogs, articles, books … and they have made so little difference.

I won’t stop; I’ll keep speaking whenever and wherever I can. But I have to confess, I have wearied of words, and rely on the real gestures I can and do make every day.

I make eye contact with, speak to, and respect every person of color I encounter in the hospital where I work and out in the world. I privilege the patients of color. I teach my fellow staff and chaplain students about social location and power in ministry, so that I can teach them about white privilege and how it warps us, as well as how to love through it and despite it.

I speak up in my white church, and offer myself as an educator. I will go anywhere and teach anyone the lessons I have learned about how to be an anti-racist Christian and how to move a church toward an anti-racist stance. And no, I don’t make money at that, because — as Andrea White said — we should not profit from oppression.

I have done my best to raise anti-racist kids, since I helped bring two more white people into the world — at the very least, they are race- and privilege-conscious. The stance they take will be up to them. I fuss with my loved ones and friends and hold my own stance — in a way that can be heard if possible, and if not, then annoyingly.

And none of it is enough, none of it, none of it. And I will keep on, with the little bit within my reach, over and over, every struggling day and every broken-hearted night.

I don’t let the fact that I can’t undo white supremacy keep me from committing each day to doing my part to dismantle a corner of it. I do use my personal pain to connect me to others who are OUTRAGED, FED UP, DONE with with deadliness of what racism does.

We can’t un-become white. We can’t win anything of lasting value through violence.

We can — and we must — change what whiteness has come to mean.

We can — and we must — change what whiteness does.

We can — and we must — change.

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IMG_0271When I worked for a business consultancy, I loved the pace and the learning. We worked with companies trying to make large-scale changes as quickly and efficiently as possible. The rate of growth and learning and change in these companies was steep; people would say a month in this kind of hyperdrive was like six months in normal operations. As our team moved from company to company, we felt like we were operating in some kind of quantum drive, gaining years of experience in months.

A chaplain’s 24-hour on-call in the hospital can feel like that, as if it is equivalent to six months of church life, but without the committee meetings. Yesterday I baptized a 24-week-gestation preemie who was not going to make it; I also baptized a 44 year old cancer patient who also was not going to make it. There was a woman with dementia mauled by dogs, a baby whose head trauma looked heartbreakingly suspicious – and their families, struggling with both guilt and grief. The list goes on, as do the struggles. I know that my 24 hour slice of the lives of these people is just that: just one day, in their lives and in mine.

When you have reached your limit as a chaplain and yet there is another human being already out beyond her limits, and you need to reach out to her, that means you are both reaching past your limits into a space neither of you really wants to be in. You have to accept it may not go well at all, and yet the alternative is to leave the other alone, forsaken. And so you reach. Awkwardly or skillfully, with words or without – you reach.

When that happens, it can feel – to me anyway – like drowning. And suddenly I think I can imagine where CPE came from. A chaplain somewhere, deep in the ocean of the night, finds a spar from a shipwreck and holds onto it, swimming toward morning light, bringing a couple of other people along, and then fetching up on a beach. Resting. Breathing. Then sleeping. And waking to wonder, how did I get here? And can I do it again? What will help me do it again? Because the dark ocean is full of people.

As these chaplains find each other, and compare stories, they realize they want to help each other not drown. And so, clinical pastoral education. A process for learning not to drown, led by CPE supervisors. Such simple plain words for those who guide souls through the deeps.

Can I help, I wonder, when I still need so much help myself? Can I learn to be a helper of helpers? To do that, I have to take a breath and turn over, face down in the dark ocean of my own pain, loss, memory, and suffering. This is the first courage … the one I hope will lead to the others.

It is laughable – well, it’s not, but I have to laugh – that one of the first communal steps in this journey toward becoming a CPE supervisor is called a “readiness assessment.” Let’s just call mine an unreadiness assessment, and let me get on with it. I have a breath to take, and an ocean to face.

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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.


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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.

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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