Saturday, May 27, 2017

The consequences of my faith

Finding the path. Photo by Eric Minbiole/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0
"I have always said that a pious Christian can be essentially atheist in ultimate commitment. The decisive factor is whether I live the consequences of my faith. Is God my authority? Which God?"

-- "Martin Niemoeller: A Confessional Courage," Cloud of Witnesses, Joyce Hollyday and Jim Wallis

Jesus took 30 years to prepare for three years of public ministry. I'm beginning to see why.

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, I transcribed from my heart a desperate plea for compassion. What I did not share at the time was that much of my thinking was being shaped by a course I had recently begun at my church -- JustFaith, an intensive (and intense) small-group program that dives into Christian social justice teaching with prayer, study, dialogue, and immersion to connect participants spiritually, intellectually, and physically with the poorest among us.

Or, to put it more bluntly, it rips your heart out every week and leaves it bleeding on the table. Because that's what waking to the world does to you: it shatters your protective privilege, snatches your blinders, and shakes you so hard that your vision scrambles and refocuses the millisecond of existence we call our lives.on what truly matters.

Clearly, the experience moved me. But not quite as I predicted.

The bigger the issues we tackled, the thornier the realities we dissected, the more I moved toward a truth I often resist -- that professing a sincere belief in the redemptive, all-encompassing, unconditional love of God requires three things of me:

  1. Cultivate and nurture a relationship with God.
  2. Live out our relationship through my actions.
  3. Cede my illusory control over those actions' processes and outcomes.

In the face of the world's suffering, I am finally acknowledging how powerless I am because I can do nothing without God. The good news is, God is already with me -- always has been, in fact -- and practically tumbling in circles to love all over me. So maybe it's more that I am powerless but love is powerful, so let's tap into the stronger force.

"It is not enough to sow the seeds of wisdom; we are called to action if we are to reap a bountiful harvest." -- Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, I Shall Not Hate

Remember, though, when I said I was starting to understand Jesus' three-decade preparation for his blink of public ministry? Building one's relationship with God is a life's work. It takes time, space, effort. Saying you'll live your faith and actually living it are leagues apart. I'm only now loosening my grip on my self-imposed mandate to save the world. I'm only now releasing myself from dictating outcomes. I'm only now recognizing that all of us already have the answer and the tools at hand. I merely need to do one thing -- show up -- and it. is scaring. the SHIT out of me.

Here's the deal: I, a lifelong practicing Catholic, am being called to a personal conversion to see God and the world as one. Now that I've heard the call, I can't unhear it ... despite my retinue of cotton balls, pillows, and ear muffs.

So the question becomes, how will heeding the call change me, my actions, my choices, my life? And can I follow this call to its inevitable conclusion -- the same one that put Jesus on a cross?

I don't know.

I don't need to know.

I want to know.

Most likely, I'll never know.

The only step I need to take right now is to show up at the edge of the dark forest. Then I'll pause and look around. See if I can spot the flickers of torches winding along the path ahead.

I'll follow one. Meet the torchbearer. Listen to her story. Share my trail mix. Walk with her.

And we'll see what happens next.

Prayer #312: At the Edge of the Forest

God of the unblazed trail, take me where I need to go. Your signals are clear: walk, pause, listen. Repeat as necessary.

I can feel your heavy breathing on my neck, your salivation over a salvation already achieved but not realized on earth. So I am giving in to giving in, acknowledging your unending wish for us to heed your friendly shoulder tap and follow your confident wave.

As we go, please surround me with new faces and different stories. Introduce me to fellow hikers on the path to conversion. Balance the night sky of my faith with the morning dew of works.

The world has unsettled me with its suffering, but I have not run here, to the edge of the woods, to escape. Rather, I come to be unsettled even more, to face the as-yet-invisible trail, to rejoice at finding your hand in the dark.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Is prayer as simple as presence?

Here? Vassilis Londos/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I once had a spiritual director who described how she regularly had "tea with God." She'd brew a fresh cup, retire to her armchair, and watch the sun set. No recitations, no rosaries, no lectio divina. Just tea, nature, and presence.

I've been digging the daily meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation lately, and faculty member Cynthia Bourgeault wrote one week:

I believe the West’s key contribution to the understanding of nondual perception is that this highest-order (“third tier”) level of consciousness is not a mere extension of the mind. It implies and requires the shift to an entirely different operating system, which is anatomically located in the heart—or better yet, in the mind in entrainment or in tune with the heart. This may be what the ancient spiritual masters from the Christian East meant in the Philokalia by “putting the mind in the heart.”

No reason, no rationalizing, no formal discourse. Just oneness, consciousness, and presence.

And then I read this passage from "Compassion"(here's the previous time I cited this book) just the other day:

Discipleship does not mean to use God when we can no longer function ourselves. On the contrary, it means to recognize that we can do nothing at all, but that God can do everything through us. As disciples, we find not some but all of our strength, hope, courage, and confidence in God. Therefore, prayer must be our first concern.

No yammering, no posturing, no forging ahead. Just pausing, listening, and being present.

Sense the theme?

All these years I've berated myself for being "bad at prayer," when I think the truth is more that I simply lack a regular, concentrated presence. I am too goal-oriented, too driven by human words (who, me?!) in a space and practice that exists beyond benchmarks and language. To relinquish these parameters is to release my puny mind and forgive my even punier capabilities.

Again, as the Center for Action and Contemplation (this time Fr. Richard Rohr, emphasis his) puts it:

Our focus eventually moves from preoccupation with perfect actions of any type, to naked presence itself. The historical word for presence is simply “prayer.” Jesus often called it “vigilance,” “seeing,” or “being awake.” When you are fully present, you will know what you need to know in that moment.

Presence is prayer. Simple (though not easy) as that. I can go to God first. I can exist from my steady heart instead of my racing brain. I can move through my divine attention deficit disorder. I can brew a cup of tea. I too can pray.

Prayer #311: Tea with God



We are here.

We are enough.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Don't forget to hope

Down, never out. Kai Schreiber/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

I'd started addressing the subject of hopefulness in talks to small groups. I'd grown fond of quoting Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader who had said that "hope" was the one things that people struggling in Eastern Europe needed during the era of Soviet domination.

Havel had said that people struggling for independence wanted money and recognition from other countries; they wanted more criticism of the Soviet empire from the West and more diplomatic pressure. But Havel had said that these were things they wanted; the only thing they needed was hope. Not that pie in the sky stuff, not a preference for optimism over pessimism, but rather an "orientation of the spirit." The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong.

-- Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

How easy, when current events bear sinister echoes of the past, to forget that history can and will repeat itself -- if you let it.

How easy, when you finally awaken to the systemic violence and injustice our world is built on, to forget that everyone has a choice. Always.

How easy, when the aging winter buffets your body and soul with blustery phlegm, to forget that you have soil, you have seeds, and you have the power to plant them.

In the face of the world's overwhelming trauma, indignity, aggression, injustice, inequality -- to say nothing of fate's mere caprice -- it's hard to "orient my spirit" and choose to bear witness. Harder still to believe I might be able to dent age-old problems. Hardest yet to contemplate moments of resonant joy and not find them insufficient for --or insulting to -- to the gravity of the situations at hand.

But where am I truly if I forget belly laughter with friends over a bowl of popcorn? The perfection of building a pillow fort to ward against a rainy day. The humility of people turning their pockets inside out to help a loved one in need. The sight of fifty women gathered in clusters to solve crises of homeland and heart. The utter relief and gratitude when harmful legislation fails. How easy to overlook these glimpses into a possible future and never absorb them, never grasp what they portend, never believe what they promise.

Because if I do not try to grasp and believe them, if I do not lift my trembling, measly, feather-plucked hope back to the wind-blown limb from which it was tossed, then I miss out on hope's attendant strength: the steady conviction that if I hold, raise up, and let go at just the right moment, then hope will fly.

Prayer #310: Hope is a Weed

Hope is a stubborn weed I pull with all my strength and never kill. Roots yanked, stems crushed, ground poisoned, it rises to defy its fate. Not only rises, but twists, snakes, worms its way around the two-layer fence I erected against all shadowy threats. Not only breaches the fence, but reaches the complacent beds I was certain I'd protected. Not only reaches them, but digs in deep. Real deep. Center-of-the-earth deep. So deep, in fact, that it takes root again, creeps back through the soil to the sun, and all the while laughs -- laughs! -- at my misplaced effort in a wild, unruly world.

Give me more weeds, God of hope. Overgrow my heart to choke out fear.


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

If not now, when? And if not me, then who?

turkishdisco/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

"Who knows—perhaps it was for a time like this that you became queen?" -- Book of Esther 4:14

You know you have struck a nerve when the meeting you hoped would attract 15 people ends up drawing 50.

That was the delightful reality of the first-ever Sisterhood of Progressive Christians meeting, where the initial circle of chairs I and the founders had set up in the middle of the echoing church hall kept growing and growing and growing until it took up two-thirds of the room.

The women who'd arrived earliest patiently obliged our constant reshuffling, moving their purses and bags at least five times before we all settled, and became veritable professionals in chair hauling dynamics. The women who came in last found exactly the number of empty seats required, as if Elijah himself had instructed us on the mechanics of predictive chair filling. And every time we added a chair or a person, we caught one another's eyes with an incredulous look that communicated, "MORE PEOPLE ARE HERE OH EM GEE," followed by a collective pooping of the pants.

I have often encountered the nonprofit jargon "growing the circle" in my day job, but until this meeting I did not understand what it meant to witness a circle's literal growth -- to see new faces appear at your side, to feel your wildest hopes pushed at the seams, to experience your heart expanding in direct proportion to the number of squeaking, rickety chairs. Such was the gift of the first Sisterhood meeting: the discovery of a modern-day red tent in which everyone was welcome and all could fit.

But I should back up.

What is the Sisterhood of Progressive Christians, exactly? (Official mission statement here.) The Sisterhood is a response to the challenging times we live in. It is a call to women to organize -- as they always do, as they always must -- and become the change they wish to see. Above all, though, it is an opportunity to wrestle with the unanswerable questions, to dialogue with God about our individual and collective purpose, and to do it all within a loving, seeking, vulnerable-in-the-best-way community.

As we went around the fifty-woman-wide circle that first night, our calls, responses, and questions steadily thickened the space between us:

I'm a mother/grandmother/mother-to-be.
 I'm a church philanderer.
I'm a patriot.
I want to reconcile my faith with my politics.
 I want to find a middle way.
I want to engage with loved ones with differing views.
I want to affect the federal and state legislature.
I've never felt this embarrassed to be a Christian. 
I want to reclaim the label.
I can't be silent anymore.
There is danger in silence.
We've lost the art of conversation.
We're looking for a voice. 
God will use me as a bridge.
You can follow Jesus and work for social justice.
What kind of Mecca do I want to make for me?
The only thing that makes me feel better is acting.
Inaction is not an option.
Faith and facts are not mutually exclusive.
The tide is not necessarily against us.
We must end intolerance and bigotry.
We're all called to authenticity.
We must make it a movement, not just a moment.

And within it all hung one big hairy question: Are we willing to be Christ's hands and feet and build his Kingdom here on earth? I left that night on fire with my answer of YAAAASSSSSSS! The next day it was, Yes! The day after that -- yes. A week later ... I think?

To keep saying YES at full volume -- to become the hands that feed the hungry and the feet that walk with the outcast and the body that puts itself on the line for of God's children, no matter their creed or ideology or fake news posting habits -- I need this community in my life. It can become the Mordecai to my Esther -- the constant, gentle reminder that God has made us of the world and for the world. It can become the lesson of a lifetime in what being a Christian truly, frightfully, wonderfully entails.

If you have said YAAASSSS QUEEN to any of my reflective ramblings, I encourage you to check out the Sisterhood of Progressive Christians on Facebook and Twitter as well as our Sisterhood Chronicles blog on Medium for a regular diet of thought-provoking discussions and opportunities for action. We and the world await you!

Prayer #309: Hands, Feet, Body, Blood

If not now, when? And if not me, then who?

True confession: I already know the answers, God. But if I give them voice I will consign myself to living them, and I'm not sure I will ever be ready enough for that.

Please nudge me from this place of not enough. Show me I am enough. Remind me you are more that enough. Help me say the answers out loud and live them even louder.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Joy: the radical rebellion

Photo by Paucal/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"Does God laugh?"

My friend's 4-year-old daughter recently posed this question to her, which -- as my friend puts it -- led to a "rather profound inquiry into what sort of things God would (and wouldn't) laugh at. One of the clear distinctions she made was that God laughs with people, not at people. Also, God likes it when we're being silly."

God laughs with people, not at people. And God likes it when we're being silly. No wonder my friend calls her daughter a little theologian. With a simple three-word question, the child hit on a deep truth about God that we as harried, stressed adults too often forget: that God created us with joy, from joy, for joy.

Not ready to accept wise words from a preschool theologian? Maybe you'll listen to C.S. Lewis instead: "Joy is the serious business of heaven." God did not create a world of pain and suffering and then say, "You know what? I'm going to stick some humans in here and watch them squirm." Rather, God created paradise -- an abundantly exuberant playground packed with infinite variety, texture, colors, and sensations, a world designed to delight. As such we have voices to sing, hands to clap, feet to dance, hearts to leap, and Thin Mints to devour. What's not to love??

What I have learned, however, is that joy is not necessarily a given in our lives. The more we slip into easy pessimism, the more joy becomes a choice. This distinction is captured crystal-clear in this translation of Romans 5:11 from the King James Version of the Bible: "And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement."

We joy in God. Joy as vivifying verb. Joy as animating action. Joy as intentional summons of a gift we've already received yet have forgotten. As Henri J.M. Nouwen writes, "Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day."

The choice becomes easier once you remember joy's effects. Just the mental image of God laughing fills me with a lightness and peace that too often gets squashed under accumulated fear, anger, and general grouchiness. Imagine then how a life lived constantly with joy and in joy would affect others around it. To be joyful is to rebel against the cynicism and meanness of vision that too often, too easily, dominates our worldview, and in such moments our choice of joy becomes radical.

May all our radical actions be born of belly laughter, slow-spreading smiles, and astonished gasps. May we come to know the profound comfort of laughing with the God whom we delight.

Prayer #308: Silly for Joy

God of heel clicks and high fives, keep me so silly for joy that I can't see straight.

Because when I am downtrodden, joy props me up.

When I am flattened, joy re-inflates me.

When I am beaten, joy wipes my brow and hands me water.

When I am proud, joy grounds me in wonder bigger than myself.

When I am uncertain, joy reminds me I am worthy.

And when all I am is joyful, joy cheers loudest of all.


Wednesday, December 07, 2016

To lie fallow

Fallow field in winter. Mark Pouley/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Around this time every year, when daylight drips away and cold creeps in, when the heft of previous months have worn my shoulders sore, I find myself wanting to lie fallow. Plowed but unsown. Arable but uncultivated. Remembered but ignored.

Because by this time every year, I have scheduled a thousand appointments, completed a million tasks, and dashed about in a billion circles, but I have scarcely moved an inch on whatever I said I would prioritize at year's start. So I vow to begin again. To strip away non-essential distractions. To allow my brain, body, and mind the rest of a tired, overworked field that has no nutrients left to give.

Yet shortly after this time every year, I have an aggravating habit of fencing off a field, then buying the neighboring farm. "SPACE!" my doer brain shouts, and before my better judgment catches up to it, my brain has started twirling in Sound of Music-like circles around the fresh new territory, convinced that this time, this year, the results will be different.

And every year, my brain is wrong -- this year in particular, because I mastered, moved, married, and mourned ... not the lightest of lifts individually, and when combined, utterly exhausting.

The cumulative result? I am tired of doing. I am tired of giving. Which is terrible timing, really, given the direction in which our world is currently headed. But if the nutrients aren't there, how can I hope to share them? How can I keep sticking seeds in spent soil and watering weak sprouts, begging them to grow into something bigger than what I've put into them?

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg says, "Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies." So there is the real question: Am I willing to trust the future potential yield of a rejuvenated mind and heart, or will I instead let fear -- fear of failure, fear of inadequacy, fear of not growing anything at all -- drive my output? True, I'm not guaranteed results from a fallow period. But I will almost certainly fail if I don't rest the ground where I plant.

Prayer #307: Leave Me Alone

Leave me alone, God. Let me be. I am dormant, I am dead, I am no longer home and awaiting your call. I'd say I moved on to greener pastures, but let's be honest -- green is the last thing I feel like being right now.

I want to be uncropped. Unplucked, unpicked, unharvested. Left beyond the borders of your consciousness so that my own consciousness can let earthworms frolic through it, uninhibited and uninterrupted.

I want to be un. Just un.

Sow later, God. Please. I promise you bounty if you leave me unbound.


Friday, November 11, 2016

The urgency of compassion

The hope beyond. Carey Rose O'Connell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

This is not a political post. It is a human one.

This is not a call for leaders to claim responsibility, for those with opposing viewpoints to accept blame, or for half of America to pick up arms and fight. Instead, I'm urging the first step. I'm urging compassion.

What this election revealed to me was a nonpartisan fear of "the other." We (note the first person plural) have channeled our fear and misunderstanding into denigrating, labeling, stereotyping, judging, and avoiding. These behaviors are not limited by geography or ideology. Except for the very saintly among us -- and believe me, sisters and brothers, I am not one of them -- no one is exempt.

In the poem "A Community of the Spirit," Rumi writes, "Close both eyes to see with the other eye." What this election revealed to me on a personal level is that I am following only the first part of the instruction. I never opened the other eye, never released the air-lock of my echo chamber, and as a result thought the world was with me. So now as I look back through a rotating haze of despair, anger, and hope, I see that I didn't and don't know how to open that eye -- and even if I did, it's so crusted over with sleep gunk that I'm going to have to take a pick axe to it first.

Once I pry it open, however, and train it on the people and perspectives I cannot fathom, I have a specific challenge at hand. My challenge is to see the person before me first as a human being, with all the dignity, complexity, and frailty that entails. Then I must recognize that same dignity, complexity, and frailty in myself. Then I must accept that we each hold values, beliefs, convictions, and perspectives that might overlap, might not, and regardless will likely be prioritized and weighted differently. And through it all, I must approach it to the best of my ability with love. I must be kind.

Here's where the wheels were coming off for me this week, especially as my echo chamber was hurtling through waves of outrage and disbelief. How in the world can I be kind? What purpose does it serve? Does seeking understanding equal condoning? It wasn't until I read this essay on Brain Pickings, titled "Carl Sagan on Moving Beyond Us vs. Them, Bridging Conviction with Compassion, and Meeting Ignorance with Kindness," that some critical distinctions clicked:

[K]indness, Sagan cautions, doesn’t mean assent — there are instances, like when we are faced with bigotry and hate speech, in which we absolutely must confront and critique these harmful beliefs, for "every silent assent will encourage [the person] next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice."


The greatest detriment to reason, Sagan argues, is that we let our reasonable and righteous convictions slip into self-righteousness, that deadly force of polarization.


Sagan’s central point is that we humans — all of us — are greatly perturbed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and in seeking to becalm ourselves, we sometimes anchor ourselves to irrational and ignorant ideologies that offer certitude and stability, however illusory. In understanding those who succumb to such false refuges, Sagan calls for "compassion for kindred spirits in a common quest." Echoing 21-year-old Hillary Rodham’s precocious assertion that "we are all of us exploring a world that none of us understand," he argues that the dangerous beliefs of ignorance arise from "the feeling of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable world."

It's not unlike preparing for travel abroad to a new country. You read up on the basics first -- common phrases, transportation options, recommended lodging -- before you dive into the place's more intricate nuances, the ones not immediately apparent to the outsider. In travel, these layers of discovery can be pleasurable. You're exposed to new sights, sounds, people, ideas, and you learn more about yourself too, your own strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. But such discovery can also be terrifying. You are pushed outside your comfort zone, confronted with the limits of your understanding, and asked to justify what you believe to be true. The potential for growth in these moments is profound -- and so is the capacity for fear.

Here, I find it helpful to look back on Sagan's point about slipping into self-righteousness, "the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive."

Compassion is what takes a chainsaw to the wall and cuts out a door for us. Consider the words of Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison in "Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life":

Here we see what compassion means. It is not a bending toward the under-privileged from a privileged position; it is not a reaching out from on high to those who are less fortunate below; it is not a gesture of sympathy or pity for those who fail to make it on the upward pull. On the contrary, compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there.

So in light of the angry discourse this week, the question for me becomes: Am I willing to seek out the most vulnerable and afraid among us so that I may better love them, knowing that those who are vulnerable and afraid span races, creeds, sexuality/gender, socioeconomic status, party lines, and voting choices? And once I drum up the courage to be willing, where do I begin the conversation?

My mandate, I think, is not to talk but to listen. Then to hear. Then to ponder. Then to act. Otherwise I am barreling into a pitch-black room with a blindfold on, swinging wildly. Now is not the time for shadow boxing, not when there are many real dangers present in the world. Now is the time to listen with intention and fight for love.

Recommended Digesting

Before you move on to my latest prayer below, check out some other articles, videos, and art that provoked my compassion contemplation:

White Christians Who Voted For Donald Trump: Fix This. Now. -- by John Pavlovitz, "Stuff That Needs To Be Said"

Evil -- by Langston Hughes

Kid President on How to Disagree Respectfully -- by Soul Pancake

I Am Afraid of Nearly Everything -- via Unitarian Universalist Association

The Danger of a Single Story -- by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Prayer #306: Instructions for Escaping the Cave

  1. Feel around in the dark.
  2. Find the stick of dynamite.
  3. Find the match.
  4. Find the spot on the cave wall that seems a shade less black than the false night surrounding you.
  5. Strike the match.
  6. Light the fuse.
  7. Place the dynamite near the hopeful spot.
  8. Don't retreat.
  9. Don't close your eyes.
  10. Don't cover your ears.
  11. Watch the stick explode.
  12. Feel the ground shudder.
  13. Absorb the shock of falling rocks.
  14. Note the jagged hole created.
  15. Crawl through.
  16. Bring your scrapes and bruises with you.
  17. Listen to the birds you could not hear before.
  18. Remember that they, and you, are alive.
  19. Rejoice.