A Thin, Thick Place

A sermon on Acts 4: 32-35, John 20: 19-31, and Psalm 133, preached at Wesley Memorial UMC on April 12, 2015, during weekend festivities for the Wesley Foundation at UVA’s 50-year Celebration and Groundbreaking.

woman holding freshly baked Communion loaf

One of the Wesley bakers, with dairy-free, gluten-free bread fresh from the oven.

In my twenties I often concocted dream visions of communal living.  Visiting with Wesley Foundation friends or Appalachia Service Project friends, we would revel in our reunion weekends, drink up the goodness of being together again, and plot our Someday dreams…a retreat center and intentional community in a big farmhouse with a huge kitchen table, a garden, and a writing shed for me, a little removed from the bustle….a self-sufficient community where we could grow our own food, make our own furniture, create all the pottery for our kitchen… These were dreams born from tight communities of faith formed at pivotal times in our lives, and that remained touchstones for all of us, no matter the time or distance.  Whenever we got together we just wanted more.  Not to go “back” exactly, but to create again that sort of Spirit-infused, life-defining, deeply communal expression of faith and love.

In none of these scenarios was I thinking explicitly of today’s passage from Acts.  In all of these times I was remembering how good and full a community I had left, how lovely it was to dwell together in unity (to quote the psalmist).  We had come together in a thin place – what Celtic spirituality calls those spaces where heaven and earth seem to be closer and more permeable to one another than usual – and in that thin place, we’d made thick, substantial, meaty community.  We had seen glimpses and flickers of God’s kingdom made manifest and those were enough to sustain visions and lives.

When I think of the book of Acts, this is the passage I most often think of, though, we have to acknowledge, this idyllic time didn’t last that long.  This time when no one held private possessions and no one was needy didn’t last.  But it was thick and real while it lasted.  It was important enough to describe and include in scripture so no one would think Did that really happen?  Was I merely dreaming?

There are many thin places in the world but we are often too busy to notice them.

There are fewer thick communities and they can be so rare that we’re tempted to think we dreamt them.

We’re celebrating 50 years of ministry at the Wesley Foundation this weekend.  It isn’t 50 years total but 50 in our current building, which we’re renovating and showing some TLC this year.  Thanks to Ed for inviting me to preach here in the midst of this weekend as part of the celebration – how fitting, since Wesley Memorial has been our partner in campus ministry since the beginning.  We had 200 people worshipping and celebrating here yesterday, alumni from at least as far back as 1963, “Wesley legacy” families with parents and children who’ve all made Wesley home, the Bishop, our district superintendent, students, and tons of friends.

Those of us celebrating yesterday and many of you here know the Wesley Foundation as a thin place.  It’s holy ground, a thin place that’s home to a thick community with permeable boundaries, always being re-formed as people graduate and matriculate.

A couple of weeks ago the Wesley Foundation’s Student Coordinating Council (SCC) met for its “changeover” meeting, our peaceful transfer of power from one group of student leaders to the next.  One of our practices at that meeting is to offer words of gratitude for those rotating off the SCC.  At one point, in the midst of a long list of wonderful attributes and things she would miss about departing a student, one student stopped herself and blurted out,  “How are you real?”

In some ways this is what Thomas needed to know and see and feel for himself, when he met the resurrected Jesus.  How is any of this real?  Do you remember what Jesus does?  He does not refer to Thomas as a doubter or chastise him in any way.  He simply offers up the most visibly wounded part of his body and invites Thomas to stick his hand all the way in and get a good, tactile feel for it.  Thomas doesn’t even have to ask; he just has to reach out in the direction of the living, very real Christ.

How are you real?  Here, see for yourself.

At its best, this is what campus ministry is:  an invitation to see for yourself, in the midst of a community thick with the Spirit of the living Christ.  It’s the kind of place where people are transformed, where they become more fully who God is calling them to be and, though it may only last 4 years, it’s enough to sustain a vision for the future.

Let me hasten to add, about that early Christian community in Acts and about the Wesley Foundation, that there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the people involved.  Don’t get me wrong:  I love me some Wesleyanos!  But what I mean is, those early Christians weren’t somehow the cream of the crop, and though UVA students are the cream of the crop in many ways, Wesley folks aren’t the cream of the cream.  That’s not what makes the community faithful or memorable or life-transforming.  What makes both the Acts community and the Wesley community thick communities is the presence of the living Christ.  It’s not the prefect storm of personalities and skills, dreamers and engineers.  It’s Jesus.

How are you real?  Jesus.  The “thickening agent” in this recipe of love is the risen Christ.

The point of highlighting this long-ago and short-lived community from Acts isn’t to show what exceptional people they were.  It’s to show what’s possible when the center of your life and community is the living Christ.  The point is not that they were particularly un-needy people but rather that living with Christ at the center meant they prioritized the needs of others, they treated one another like family.

As I read our scripture passages this week I was struck by how physical and tangible the images are in each one.  The risen Christ offers the wound in his side to Thomas.  Surely the Acts community prays and worships together but we hear how they “bear powerful witness to the resurrection” (v. 33) by sharing things, the tangible goods they owned; they sold houses and properties and gave the proceeds to the group, to be used to purchase what they needed; people were housed and fed and clothed.  And Psalm 133 offers us the messy but luxurious image of Aaron’s long, thick, bushy beard, claiming that living together as one is like expensive oil poured over his head and running through that big beard, soaking it through.  Like I said, it’s messy, but it’s hard to read that and then think that spiritual things are separate and apart from physical things.

It’s also hard to read these passages and think that being faithful, being Christian is merely “between me and God.”  Part of what is real and tangible about God in these stories is that God is made manifest in Christian community….in living together as family…in making sure no one among us is needy…in offering breath, touch, forgiveness, sharing our vulnerable and wounded selves with one another…

The reason we had 200 people here yesterday is because this is a place and a people who have embodied life with the risen Christ.  People from across the decades are still savoring the thin place and space of their time at Wesley.  Students are fed here, literally, every Thursday night.  They stay up late together in Study Camp, offer rides home in the dark.  They take each other to the hospital, offer hugs on hard days, and water on hot mission trips.  Some meet their future mates here.  We welcome strangers – every fall when new students arrive, and many other times when someone comes in crisis, or when other religious groups fall short and they are looking for a faith community where they can be and become all of who God made them to be.

One of the clearest recent examples of “no needy persons among us” is our Communion bread.  At the 5pm worship service we celebrate Communion every week, gathered around the Table, offering the elements to one another around the circle.  It’s a highlight and an orienting moment in each week.

But in the past few years we noticed we were meeting more and more students with gluten sensitivities, celiac disease, and some folks who both gluten-free and dairy-free.  We struggled along for a while, using a little side plate on the Table to feed those who needed special bread at Communion.  It seemed like the best we could do.

Until a student asked if she could try making a loaf we could all eat.  There are two very important things to say about this endeavor:  1) It took her and a few other dedicated bakers experimenting for several weeks before we settled on the recipe we now use.  Those early loaves were not all pretty or as tasty as what we have now.  So, it wasn’t “perfect” from the start.  And 2)  The second thing to say is the one who offered to bake was not one of the students who had food allergies.  She herself didn’t need the bread to change for her own health – she wanted to do this so that there would be no needy persons among us.

These are the moments I hear students and alumni recount decades after their years here.  Deep spiritual moments expressed in physical ways, in the context of community…She remembered my name, he gave me a ride, they listened when I vented about my roommate, they didn’t laugh when I said I was thinking of going to seminary, they made bread I could eat, too…

Real, tangible bread, offered so that all could eat.  That’s what a community thick with Christ looks like – that’s what it tastes like!  That’s how love ends up looking like a round loaf of bread glistening with coconut oil on its crust.  That’s the simple but extravagantly grace-filled type of thing that keeps this a thin place thick with the love of Christ.  That’s why four years is a short time but long enough to send us out into the world and the rest of our lives, with the beacon of this community to orient us and the taste of heaven on our tongues.

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit:  © 2015 Aaron Stiles.  Used with permission.


There’s a woman in the pulpit…and her book’s on the bookshelf

I’m excited to announce the publication in April of There’s a Woman in the Pulpit: Christian Clergywomen Share Their Hard Days, Holy Moments & the Healing Power of Humor (SkyLight Paths Publishing)

Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

#WomaninthePulpit

It is a joy to be included in this collection of stories and prayers written by more than 50 of my colleagues who are members of RevGalBlogPals and who represent 14 denominations, 5 countries, and more than a dozen seminaries.

“In ministry, we constantly balance the sacred and the ordinary, juggling the two as expertly as we manage a chalice and a [baby] bottle. Even as we do things as simple as light the candles, set the table, break the bread and pour the wine, we invite people into a holy moment…. The women [in this book] not only have a wellspring of deep wisdom, but they also have the ability to dish out their knowledge with side-aching humor…. I am thrilled that their great wisdom and intelligence will be bound into the pages that I can turn to, lend and appreciate for years to come.”                           —from the Foreword by Rev. Carol Howard Merritt

Intended for laypeople, women hearing a call to ministry and clergy of all denominations, these stories and prayers will resonate with, challenge, encourage and amuse anyone who has a passion for their work and faith. A group reading guide will be available on the SkyLight Paths Publishing website – consider choosing it for your book group!


Working and Resting Revisited

resting hotel door hanger

I’ll admit this woman looks like she’s having fun.  But I was almost as dismayed with this hotel door hanger as I was with the all-working version we encountered in October.  I’m sure she’s working up a sweat with all that jumping.  I might even be willing to call it “rejuvenating,” but restful?

Why can’t she be taking a nap?  Or be snuggled beneath a blanket reading a book?  Why can’t she be listening to music with her feet propped up?

It seems one of the many causalities of our overworking is our resting.  When we deign to rest it now looks like a competitive sport rather than an afternoon spent dozing or meandering through a music collection.

Yeah, I know, it’s just a door hanger.  It’s some hotel marketing department’s creative answer to standard equipment.  I get that I’m allowed to rest how I want to no matter what the picture shows.  I just think we deserve work that looks less like a constant war and rest that looks a lot less like work.  We deserve cycles of work and rest rather than one-speed-fits-all living with the labels changed every now and then.


Another Aspect of Real Ministry

moneybags public domain_512px-New_Orleans_City_of_Old_Romance_and_New_Opportunity_Crop_p_23_Moneybags

One thing we don’t need more of is gloomy doom-filled prophecy about the state of the church, campus ministry, and money.  Another thing we don’t need is more clergy and campus ministers referring to things like fundraising and routine administrative work as “not real ministry.”  That’s like if Jesus, instead of telling the disciples to feed the 5000 (Mark 6: 30-44), had said, “I don’t care if they’re hungry.  We’ve been healing and teaching for days.  That’s real ministry.  I don’t care how they get fed so let’s get out of here”…

[Click here for the rest of the story and my tips for fundraising as a very real aspect of campus ministry, over at the National Campus Ministry Association blog.]

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photo credit:  By Southern Railway System [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 


Campus ministry is a different matter

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She was a student from a church in our district, located near enough to us that they serve dinners to students each year.  She grew up in that church and she was involved in the Wesley Foundation all four years of college, serving as a leader here in a variety of roles.  And she stopped me cold with her observation.  I had asked her to reflect on what makes Wesley different and valuable as a faith community for college students and she said, “No one at my home church would ever let me lead anything.”

I appreciate Tom Fuerst’s helpful reorientation this week on the topic of millennials’ engagement in church  (Why Aren’t Millenials Attending Your Church?).  He offers an antidote to the impotency of constant worry, and he gives one central thing every worshipping community could implement.  I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that removing children and youth from worship, in favor of age-restricted and so-called age-appropriate activities, is misguided, has backfired, and has taken us too long to notice.

When he lumps campus ministry into the mix, I think he gets it wrong…

[Click here for the rest of the story at Ministry Matters.]

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Final Kiln at Nan’s

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I walked into Nan’s pottery studio the day before Easter four years ago.  Woody and I were eating lunch nearby, saw her brochure in the restaurant, and decided to follow the directions to her studio.  It was a lovely, rare, ambling afternoon, a little adventure of meandering the unfamiliar back roads leading to her long, sloping gravel driveway.

I knew I’d like her pots.  She had some on display in the restaurant, where I’d picked them up one by one and seen the same ”NR” stamp on the bottoms.  Even though we arrived as she was shooting a demo video she cheerfully stopped and gave us a tour.  I wandered through her cottage-like studio and showroom admiring the glazes and forms and bashfully saying, “No, I’m not a potter, but I’ve collected pottery for a long time.”

“I teach classes here.  I usually have a long waiting list but right now I happen to have an open spot, if you’re interested.”

That’s when things changed.  All the way home in the car Woody and I talked money and timing and how long the drive to class would take, but it was already a done deal.  I was doing it.

Becoming not just a potter, but Nan Rothwell’s student, has been one of the unexpected blessings of these past few years.  Pottery is a grounding and spiritual practice that gets me out of my head and back into my body, fully in the present moment.  I’ve written a few things about it here but this probably sums it up best.  I always knew, even before I held my first lump of clay, that I’d love working with it.  What I didn’t know until I became Nan’s student, was how much I needed a teacher.  Those of us in her classes said all the time how lucky we were.  We counted our blessings out loud, regularly.

Life keeps changing and one of those changes this past year was that Nan and her husband decided to try city living for the first time in decades.  In October, Nan closed her teaching studio and we fired the final kiln there.  Here are the last pots I made at Nan’s.

Nan’s teaching at a new place and I look forward to taking classes with her there.  It will all be different, but no matter how many places I sit down at a wheel and no matter how many teachers I learn from, Nan will always be my pottery teacher.  She’s the one who said completely obvious things that came from deep wisdom and forty years of throwing pots, but which were not obvious enough to me before she said and demonstrated them – things like, “Just because the wheel’s moving fast, doesn’t mean you have to.”  Nan has helped me move more slowly and deliberately at the wheel and in life.  She’s the one who let me become a student again and walked me over the threshold from admirer to potter.


Winter Afternoon Haiku. No Snow.

bird footprints in winter sand

I wrote these a few weeks back one afternoon, enjoying the late light but wishing for snow.  Looks like we might be getting some today, at last.  As I burrow in on the ultimate snow day – retreat! – here are two slightly different takes on winter hibernation.

 

Afternoon light slants

Winter’s long shadows stretching

Golden sun descends

 

Netflix beckons me

Siren song of temptation

Ten seasons of Friends

 

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photo credit:  © 2015 by Woody Sherman


What we talk about when we talk about sex

IMG_4156 copie

When I told the group of students in this semester’s Sabbath study that Sabbath is meant to be a time to explore and revel in what delights us that was OK.  When I said the Jewish tradition explicitly includes sex in the list of delights – that it’s actually prescribed as a Sabbath activity – that was OK, too.  When I made sure to say that, of course, the understanding is that these activities take place within a marriage, that was entirely expected and by the book, but it was not OK with me.

That’s what I am supposed to say.  It matches our common United Methodist understanding as expressed in the Book of Discipline.  I’m not sure how well it matches our lived experience as Christians in North America in 2015.  And I’m certain it’s not enough for most young adults to go on.  In this particular year of ministry at the University of Virginia I am increasingly uncomfortable with our church conversations about sexuality.  I wonder a lot about my role and responsibility as an ordained elder.  Is it merely to communicate current stances accurately?

I have known college students who have not yet experienced their first kiss and I have known others who’ve experienced sexual violence.  I’ve known students who are desperate to date and find someone and I’ve known others who don’t have time for that because they’re hyper-focused on the next academic and career steps.  I’ve known many students who date and have relationships while they are in school and many of them are sexually active.  What they all have in common is an appalling lack of religious language and imagery for full-bodied healthy sexuality.  Whether they adhere to it or not, they all know that in church circles sex is for marriage.  They know it’s a gift from God but it’s a pretty strange gift because it stays wrapped up in Christianese gift language without much exploration of how to use the gift.  “When you get married” is not enough of an exploration.  Leaving aside for now the huge problem that only certain people in certain places have the option for marriage, this is still a wholly unsatisfactory exploration.

As we discussed rape culture at the Wesley Foundation last semester, it became painfully apparent that unexamined, unexplored gift language can be a further assault to someone who has been sexually violated.  If, as some versions of the gift conversation go, this is the best most important gift God gives us and that’s why we need to save it for The One, then what is a raped woman supposed to do with all that?  What comfort and what level of conversation is available to her then, in a church community  that has only ever said this one thing about sex?  For that matter, what theological conversation is available to someone who is sexually active in consenting relationships, as many young adults (and older adults) are?  By our narrow focus and our silence are we communicating this is a “leave it at the door” kind of thing?

Our sacred scriptures contain extreme sexual violence (Judges 19 as just one example).  They also contain some of the most beautiful poetry, absolutely reveling and delighting in sexual exploration with one’s (unmarried) beloved (Song of Solomon).  Our central Christian story starts with an unmarried pregnant teenager and no matter how we understand those events and the notion of being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit as Mary was, those facts remain (Luke 1: 26-38).  What do these stories tell us about greed, betrayal, violence, and power?  About perseverance?  About resourcefulness? About mistakes and punishment?  What do they tell us about delight and the powerful connection to another person and that person’s body?  About the soaring wonder that we experience skin to skin?  What do they tell us about unexplained circumstances?  About loyalty?  About redemption and the holiness of embodied life and love?

These are just the tip of the iceberg, the first questions that come to mind when I read our community stories involving sex.  Notice how much more is going on than mere description of body parts or edicts about right behavior.  Notice how little we tend to say about the rest of it.

Saying only “save it for marriage” is not enough and it’s not a fair reflection of our own tradition.  In the case of someone who’s been sexually assaulted, if our sexuality conversation is so stilted, euphemistic, and childish that she can’t come (back) to church with the worst thing that’s happened to her, what are we here for anyway?  In the case of a restless experimenting teenager who already hasn’t “saved it,” where can she rejoin the church community conversation if she’s already out of bounds?

Ruth Everhart has posted several good pieces this week, asking preachers how we intend to deal with Valentine’s Day and sex.  Her posts are a good reminder that we need real, earthy, God-inclusive conversations about sexuality – and not just at Valentine’s Day.  The Atlantic published a thoughtful article last fall called “When ‘Do Unto Others’ Meets Hookup Culture” and we used it in our recent Wesley conversations.  The author points out that our basic ethic of treating others as we would like to be treated serves as a great starting place for conversations about sexuality.  This standard is more than mere consent and it requires attentiveness to the other person, the situation you are in, the relationship or lack thereof…It requires active engagement and moral reflection on an ongoing basis.

What if we in the church shifted focus from the before and after marriage conversation – what if instead of focusing on when to start having sex, we talk together about how we go about it, whenever it is we start?  What if we start from the supposition that God’s good gift of sexuality can be expressed in a variety of ways?  What if we admit it might be possible to have good, healthy, Christian sex for various reasons and in various forms of relationships, possibly even no relationship?  What if we start there because this opens our conversation up to the largest breadth of people and experiences?

When I hold “Ask Your Campus Minister” nights and students can put any questions they want to in a hat, I always pull one out that asks about sex.  Whether they’ve read it or not, they already know what our Book of Discipline says.  They don’t want to hear “Marriage.  Next question?”  They want something real that they can use.  They want something meaty and nuanced enough to carry them through the complexities of sexuality in its beautiful, surprising, confusing, God-given varieties.  Nothing less is OK.

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photo credit: © 2011 Renaud Camus , CC BY 2.0


If you had told me

welcome sign sullivans island

 

If you had told me I’d be writing poetry in a movie-set house

on Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina,

on a grey rainy day in the middle of the week,

- as part of my job -

I might have believed it,

depending on when you’d told me.

 

The me who drank café crèmes in French cafés,

camped for the afternoon sipping

and pouring words into journals too myopic and lovesick to read now,

that me would have believed it.  No hesitation.

Of course, I’ll be a writer one day.  The set sounds perfect.

 

Twentysomething me, writer of the Bermuda short story

I showed every friend I had because, well, I was proud of it

and because I didn’t know what else to do with it,

she would have sheepishly asked, What kind of poetry?

 

Heartbroken me, would have sniffed, nodded,

looked up with red-rimmed eyes, knowingly.

What’s his name? 

 

Newly-minted seminarian me, the lonely one

still uncertain of her call after three years and a degree

who cried when the priest rubbed ashes on her forehead one Wednesday,

would have wanted to know What happened to ministry?

 

The oldest me

girl in a lavender bedroom

following the Ingalls family out west for the first time

would have – if you could have gotten her to look up from the book –

smiled

the unabashed smile of delight.

 


Permission not to take notes

markcantrelltakingnotes_C2009_GPeeples

The competing voices in my head each sound reasonable.  That’s the problem.

One voice is the keep-track-of-it voice.  The one who wants to capture the precise moment with a picture or by writing down that perfectly turned phrase.  This voice knows that someday when I stumble upon the preserved memory I’ll stop and take it in again.  I’ll be so happy then that I kept it and can remember and relive it.

The other voice is the be-here-now voice.  The one who wants to be fully immersed in the present experience, not with one eye on the future memory of the moment I’m still trying to have right now.  This voice knows that whatever I remember, unaided, will be enough and just the thing I needed to know when the time comes and that, even if I can technically remember nothing from the present experience, it will have changed me somehow whether or not I can articulate or point to or recall it.

Being the kind of English major I was in college was the perfect combination of these voices.  I came to class with novel in hand, underlined and highlighted.  I opened my notebook to a fresh sheet and dated the page.  The things I wrote in my notebook were extensions of thoughts, an idea or something I wondered about because of the conversation taking place in class.  I rarely wrote down plot points of facts or direct quotes from the professor or my fellow students.  Mine were not the notes a friend would borrow to catch up on what she missed when absent.  My notebook might have only the word “sea” underlined, with no other words nearby, from a discussion of Mrs. Dalloway.  It might have the beginnings of an outline for the paper I conceived of during and because of the discussion.

As an English major, I was committed to living in the texts, wading around in them, feeling emotions because of them.  For me, class was an extension of the reading experience – a bunch of readers wading in together and seeing how swift the current was or how temperate the water.  Who needs notes to understand or remember that sort of thing?

Those note-taking enterprises were entirely different from, say, attending a workshop on saving for retirement, where the terms are not organic or natural to me and where remembering the feeling of the workshop isn’t an adequate action plan to take home and implement afterwards.  That kind of endeavor needs 1-2-3 and if/then.

Theology and religious life seem much more like my version of English class than like a retirement workshop.  I don’t mean we don’t need rigor and specifics when studying theology or biblical texts, but it does seem we are meant to wade in and see what happens and let our minds free-associate and our hearts feel.  I think I used to do that more.

I resist the preacher-with-all-the-answers model of ministry, though too often I have looked for the right or best answer.  I’ve let the questioner or the question back me into a corner rather than seeing him or it as an invitation to go swimming.

I notice a strange thing happening these days.  As we concoct more and more easily retrievable means of “remembering” (phones and computers and email that can store ridiculous amounts of info, texts, photos, correspondence, recordings…) I’m increasingly worried over forgetting, misplacing, or missing out on something.  Strange since it is actually hard to lose track of our information now and easy to save it without once thinking of whether it’s worth saving.  (Recent research indicates our devices don’t help us with recall as much as we might like – or as much as old school pen and paper.)

At a fall conference on theology and storytelling, I didn’t feel like preparing for the right answer or being the good note taker.  I knew for sure I would forget finer points but I was tired and I was thinking of the time away as a deep well.  I needed water, not documentation.  So out of exhaustion more than intent, at first, I gave myself permission not to take notes.  I sat with an open page and wrote very little.  As I watched others in the conference typing and writing furiously, I felt conspicuous at first.  I heard the voices in my head arguing.  They both made their good points.  I was positive I’d forget some things worth remembering – but the permission to be fully present while it was happening was freeing and more important than being able to tell someone else exactly what the speaker had said later on.

I’ve been trying to do this more.  Permission not to take notes is an invitation to step in and try the water.  I’m guaranteed to forget a few things, maybe even some important things.  But that was always going to happen, no matter how copious the notes or diligent the note taker.  Besides, I can jot down a few impressions of the experience later, while I dry off on the bank.

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Photo credit:  “Mark Cantrell taking notes” © 2009 Gary Peeples, USFWF,   CC BY 2.0

 


What An Old Monk Can Teach

flood sign in water

I was visiting a 90-something-year-old who had just asked how things were going.  I admitted I had too much on my plate and felt overwhelmed by it at that moment.  She said, “I can’t remember the last time I was overwhelmed.”  I was annoyed and ungenerous in my heart.

About that same time, early October with gorgeous colors ablaze in the trees and perfect crisp weather, a very nice woman at church asked if I’d been doing any hiking.  My first and most accurate response, which I somehow managed not to say out loud was, “Are you f*@#ing kidding me?”

Yes, I know I have a problem.

Between college and seminary I worked for 3 years in Appalachia.  I lived just outside of a town with one flashing light, on the side of a mountain where I could hear cows mooing from the other side of the mountain and, standing on the front porch, I could look across the ridges to Tennessee.  This makes it sound like a simple life and a slower pace.  From my current vantage point, I’m tempted to think that way, though it’s not entirely true.  I worked for a non-profit hosting huge groups of volunteers doing home repair, with full blast, no-stopping seasons of activity and slight pauses to catch our breath at other times of year.

During that time I first ran across this quote from the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander):

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

I highlighted, starred, and dog-eared this quote.  I read it and re-read it.

I posted it next to my desk when I first began in campus ministry.  Back then, observing the pace at which students were living, I was convinced that one of the best things we could do in campus ministry was to convince students to slow down, empty out, take a day off, and even skip a class here and there.  I was dismayed to hear students talk about skipping class – to finish a paper for another class.  It was never to lounge on the grass and read poetry or contemplate the sky.

Unfortunately, it’s still just as applicable in campus ministry today, more than a decade later.   Even more unfortunately, Merton’s quote is still just as applicable in my own life now as it was when I first read and seized upon it on that hill in Appalachia 25 years ago.

Temptation is great.  Memory and will are weak.  This time, I can get it all done.  This time, I’ll fit in everything everyone wants.  This time, it won’t break me to work and never rest.

Wrong again.

In these months of being overwhelmed and undernourished, when I want to snap at pleasant people in church and nonagenarians, I return to Merton’s wisdom.  In this Advent season when we hear the invitation to repent (“turn around”), I am trying hard to turn around – again – and to move in the direction of life.  Or at least, more life and less death.

It’s been too long since I “skipped class.”  I’ve been missing out on poetry and the gorgeousness of the unearned sky.  The two hardest things I did in the past week were when I said “No, not now” to people asking for my time or attention.

I’ve been living with this quote for a long time now but it’s newly occurring to me that, yes, it’s about me and choices I make and the encouragement it gives to choose otherwise.  But it’s also about a lifelong practice.  I used to think I could learn this and embody it and move on to other issues.  Now I think maybe Thomas Merton was even wiser than I knew.  Maybe his advice is also about the continual staunching of that tide, about the necessary maintenance we must undertake on the retaining wall holding back that persistent hillside of “too much.”

I don’t know that I’ll ever “fix” this as I once imagined was possible, but I hear the call to tend to it.  To turn around and tend to my spirit, even as many other things and people need tending.  My prayer-in-practice in these waning Advent days is to be met in my turning, to realize at bone-soul level that my best work is to behold and receive.  Every time I turn, there’s God.  This is my prayer for all of you, too.

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photo credit:  “Overwhelmed Flood sign, Upton-upon-Severn,” © 2013, Bob Embleton , CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Emmanuel

 

An Advent homily, preached 12/7/14 at a Wesley Foundation at UVA & Wesley Memorial UMC joint worship service.

If we can’t find the connections between what we do here in this place and what’s happening out there, we aren’t really trying.  In this messy, desperate, trauma-filled semester at UVA and in our country, if we wonder what Advent and Christmas have to do with all that, then we aren’t thinking at all.

This is the time of year when we sing and pray, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus…Come, O Come, Emmanuel…..Come and be with us.  Come to our aid, be who you promised to be, God-with-us.

And even though we use royalty purple as the color for Advent, the Prince we got came without an army.  The Prince of Peace entered defenselessly, in the dark of night, naked, unable to take care of even himself at first.

The Savior of the world came as a despised Jew, born in poverty in a borrowed barn.  When God decided to come down here Godself, it was to an unexpectedly, shamefully pregnant teenager.  Right from the beginning, God incarnate – Jesus – chose an inexperienced, poor, minority, female teenager to be the first one to hold him.  A nobody, easily overlooked.  A girl, with no power, who was lucky her fiancé Joseph believed in his dreams enough to marry her and be part of God’s strange plan, rather than leaving her disgraced.  (Because some things haven’t changed nearly enough in 2000 years, one of those being our inclination not to believe what women tell us about their own lives.)

Jesus is still showing up in places just like this.  Who’s paying attention?

If I say to you Jesus is as interested here and now in sexual politics and violence towards women as he was when he chose to be born to an unwed teenage girl, does it seem like too much?

If I say to you Jesus is showing up right now in Ferguson and New York, looking like a black teenager wearing a hoodie, does it seem out of line?

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear again those beautiful words Mary sang when she and her cousin Elizabeth met, both pregnant and full of promise (Luke 1: 52-53):  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

The sides are not as simple as some of us want them to be:  frat boy/ first year woman…real threat/ police officer….protestor/ law-abider … white/black …reporter/subject…

And yet, this is the language Mary sings…powerful/lowly…hungry/rich.

I can’t hear her song this year and not also hear echoes of the old protest song Pete Seeger sang in the 60s, “Which Side Are You On?”  The sides are not as simple as we sometimes think but Jesus’ side is always the same one.  Lowly, powerless, poor, hungry, vulnerable, defenseless.  The nobodies everyone else ignores.

In the past I’ve leaned heavily on the waiting imagery of Advent, the tension of this time when we’ve tasted and glimpsed the full reign of God but we’re still struggling, waiting, for it to come in all its fullness and glory.  That’s all still true and Adventy.

But this year I can’t stand here and encourage you to wait, if waiting means the status quo…if waiting means more of the same…if waiting means blind trust in the ones with all the power…if waiting means not looking too closely at my own power and my reticence to use if in service of the powerless…

One of the best things we Christians do is re-tell our stories.  There is no way to hear all they have to say in just one telling.

This story bears repeating.  We may have occasionally gotten a little too cozy, fuzzy-focus, Hallmark about hearing and telling it again, amidst our decorated homes and churches and trees and holiday parties.  We may have replaced our religious fervor with uncomplicated nostalgia, gazing at the familiar manger.

Don’t settle for cozy when God’s offering emancipation.

Where is God calling you this season?  “To the manger” is not the answer, unless you are an especially metaphorical person.

Where is God calling you?  Always, again and again, to the places and people who are hungry, powerless, poor.  The overlooked and unimpressive nobodies, by the world’s standards.

Don’t wait to meet them.  Don’t wait for things to settle down.  Don’t wait for that sweet manger-baby to turn into a nice young man.  Emmanuel, God-with-us, is here for nothing less than a revolution – and he thinks it’s worth dying for.

What we do here is meant to carry over out there.  It may not look the same in my life as in yours.  For some of us it may look like volunteering with a sexual assault support group.  For some of us it may mean becoming reporters and reforming ethical journalism.  For others it may look like a “die-in” or a march on Washington or crossing over the color lines at UVA to meet someone on their own turf and terms.  For others, it may begin with paying attention to our own language and the ways we abuse our own power and injure others without meaning to or realizing we’re doing it.

There are a million ways to choose to see and support our neighbors as fully human brothers and sisters.  There are a million ways to meet God in the process.

The story we tell and re-tell – the one we long to hear and live out in its fullness – is a story about God-with-us, Emmanuel.  The long-expected Jesus who came into a real body in real time and a real place – who still comes, and who will not stop coming, no matter what.

Come and be with us!  Come to our aid, be who you promised to be, God-with-us.

Thanks be to God!

 

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photo credit: “Black Lives Matter,” © 2014, Gerry Lauzon , CC BY 2.0