Belief’s back side

Ruined book cover_everhart_aug 2016

It was when I lived in the heart of Appalachia for three years between college and seminary, that I started to cringe whenever I heard sweet, well-meaning folks say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I knew what they meant, these generous volunteers from around the US who spent vacation weeks to help repair and build homes for low-income people. For some of them, it was a huge step to get to the place of uttering this phrase. It meant they could see how similar they were to the people they had come to help. When people said this, they meant it was hitting them fresh in the face that a paycheck or an illness or birth into a different family would have put them in the same position of poverty and need.

My cringe response developed because of what was not said. If – except for the bounty of God’s grace – you might be in the same situation as that person over there, does that mean God’s grace ran out for that person? If the only thing separating you from that person over there is the grace of God, does that mean God does not bestow grace upon him?

Ruth Everhart calls it the “back side” of our theology, these second-thought obvious questions and holes exposed by our first-thought confident statements of faith. It’s a helpful term, focusing on what’s behind/beside/beneath what we say. Everhart’s new memoir, Ruined, explores the experience she and her college housemates had of being sexually assaulted in their home, and how her life, love, and faith unfolded in the years that followed. As she and her housemates attempted to make sense of what had happened to them, the language and theology they used to do so betrayed the differences in their experience and theology.

One housemate, Cheryl, had not been raped. Everhart overhears Cheryl saying to another friend, “I just kept reciting the Twenty-third Psalm over and over, and I guess God heard me.” Everhart continues, “Didn’t she know that we’d all been saying that psalm while our heads were smashed into the nap of the carpet? I kept my distance from Cheryl after that. She’d had her own experience of the crime and her own reaction. Her belief that God had intentionally spared her obviously gave her comfort. Who knows? Perhaps in her shoes, I would have felt the same. But Cheryl seemed unaware of the back side of her belief about being spared. What did that mean for the rest of us, who had not been spared?” (Ruined, p. 79).

Everhart, who was raised in the Dutch Calvinist tradition and eventually became an ordained Presbyterian minister, frames her story with stark markers of “back side belief.” She begins the book with this sentence: “It happened on a Sunday night, even though I’d been a good girl and gone to church that morning” (p. 3). In the epilogue, she reflects on the moment, decades later, when one of her young daughters first learns about the assault on her mother. Her daughter finds an old news clipping Everhart saved: “’Rapist-robber? Oh, Mom’ – your face twisted up – ‘you mean you weren’t a virgin when you married Dad! Poor you!’ It was a shock to realize that your understanding of sexual violence was being filtered through the language of sexual purity” (p. 317). It was shocking to me, as a reader and a Christian, to consider her daughter’s reaction. How odd to have compassion (“Poor you!”) so misplaced (“you weren’t a virgin”). How strange and twisted a “Christian” belief whose back side is worry over purity/virginity rather than over a violent attack.

What we profess is important. But if we have not examined the back side of those beliefs, we don’t know what we are saying – or what we really believe.

There is so much to recommend Everhart’s book, beginning with her writing, that manages to be both incisive and humorous in exactly the right places. Everhart is not an untouchable hero in this story, making all the “right” choices about her life, but she is deeply relatable, even if your own experience of sex, violence, and faith have been different than hers. I admired the intentional way she attempts to overcome her fear of black men after the attack. Everhart is white, from an overwhelmingly white community and church, and had very few interactions with black people before the black attackers broke into her home. As she describes her post-attack encounters with black men, she is honest about her unflattering knee-jerk reactions while also being kind with her still-terrified younger self. Her later church shopping struck me as genuine and wise, when she trusts God’s “Spirit to do something important in this hour every week, even if I didn’t know exactly what that was” (p. 275).

This is an honest and important book – especially for the church, where we so often have trouble discussing sex and sexual violence and where the unexamined back side of our belief heaps harm upon violation, for those in the pews and for our neighbors.

If you have read a blurb about Ruth Everhart’s memoir and were pretty sure it wasn’t going to make your reading list, I hope you’ll do yourself a favor and read it anyway. Despite the title, this is not a story of ruin, but of profound and inviting redemption. If you’re brave enough to accompany Ruth as she so beautifully describes her life and faith, you realize the only thing ruined was the theology that claimed that word.

 

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Full Disclosure: I received a free advance reader copy of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Photo credit: Ruined book cover. Used with the permission of Ruth Everhart.

This summer I went swimming

swimming in lake george_2016

Almost anything can be a spiritual practice, if you let it. It’s about the practice – the routine and prioritization of it, the days upon weeks turning into months of it – in the presence of an open spirit, willing to learn and be led. Molded, over time. Swimming is like this for me. I’ve written before about how swimming helps keep me focused on the present moment, and how flip turns are teaching me about energy, rest, and resilience.

Well, this summer I went swimming. A lot. A very few stormy days I swam inside at the gym, but most of the time I swam outside. I was a regular in the lone roped-off lap lane at our neighborhood pool, I practiced with a group in a lake in Richmond, and I competed in my first open water swim in another lake near Charlottesville. (And came in third in my age group. And got a medal. But who’s keeping track?) When we visited family at another lake in New York, I recruited my husband to kayak alongside me as I swam so boats wouldn’t run me over. In South Carolina, I swam in the bathwater warm ocean, but the best swims were in the outdoor lap-swimming-only pool that was cooled. (Yes, they “air conditioned” the pool and it was so scrumptious I don’t really care how non-environmental that may sound.)

To throw yourself into something you love is, simply, delicious. Giving yourself over to its rhythms and routines, watching yourself with curiosity to see where the love will unfold and take you. Allowing yourself to be unreasonable and devoted, depleted and good-tired. This is what I did this summer, when there were very few rules and obligations, the expansiveness of summertime and sabbatical overlapping. I absolutely organized my days around my swims.

And it was worth it.

Part of what sustained spiritual practice teaches you is how much you need it. I am not the same swimmer I was in May. I am not entirely the same person.

pre race cgl_july 9 2016

It may surprise you, but the open water swim was not the most daunting thing I did this summer. It was the open water practice swim I joined a couple weeks before that in Richmond. I had to drive over an hour away to a place I didn’t know, to meet up with people I didn’t know, to try out swimming in a body of water I’d never seen, while wearing my bathing suit in front of complete strangers. Buttons were pushed. I almost bailed. I woke up that day feeling nervous about it, uncertain about whether I could keep up, whether I’d be able to site the buoys, how thin and athletic all the other swimmers would likely be. I wasn’t sure I’d even like open water swimming, so wasn’t this kind of a waste of time and money?

I talked myself down. I recognized all those demons and agreed they could even be right. And I agreed to go to this one practice session anyway and just see. If I hated it, fine, no obligation to continue or do other open water swims after that. But I was not going to bail based on fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, and what ifs. (During the academic year, it would have been much easier to bail. The time and money concern trolls would have had a lot more sway if that evening’s jaunt to Richmond had been sandwiched in between meetings and a buzzing phone.)

I was glad I went. Not everyone there was athletic and skinny. I was not the slowest. I loved it when we swam straight out into the middle of the lake to make a loop around an instructor standing on a paddle board. I loved it even more when the complete stranger I got paired up with said to me after one lap, “You go first and don’t worry about me. I could barely keep up with you.”

Spiritual practice involves repetition and new territory, ritual and change.

I was never particularly worried that I might have drowned, but when I heard Lucy Kaplansky’s “Swimming Song” for the first time late this summer, I recognized my own bravery and playful pride, swimming my way up and down the waters of the east coast. Kaplansky sings, “This summer I went swimming. This summer I might have drowned, but I held my breath, and I kicked my feet, and I moved my arms around.” Sounds simple and it kind of is, but simple can also be hard.

Spiritual practice takes trust and bravery, allowing yourself to be held up by something you are participating with but that’s not you. This is also one of the “tricks” to open water swimming, especially when you get scared or unnerved by the vastness and the murky depths. The key is to remember, “The water wants to hold you up.”

1-mile medal_cgl_july 9 2016

Today the cicadas are singing summer towards the door. We are experiencing an unusually temperate and humidity-free start to the week and we got to open up the windows again yesterday. It won’t last long. By Friday it will be sweltering, but that won’t last long either. Fall is on the way.

I’ll get in a few more swims in the neighborhood pool before it closes for the season. And I have designs on a quarry, where a new friend swims as late into the fall as she can. I’ve started wondering about open water swims for next year. In the meantime, after a summer of peripatetic swimming, I will log a lot of miles in the gym, same place each day, but never the same “river”—or swimmer – twice.

 

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Photo credit: Photos ©2016 by Woody Sherman. Used with permission.

Adding the flip turn

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Practicing open water swimming in the lake. No flip turns required.

Flip turns have a mystique about them. Walk up to any pool and watch folks swimming laps. Your eyes will immediately go to the swimmers who do flip turns at the walls. It doesn’t matter if they are faster than the other swimmers, they will look fiercer because of the flip turn. Conversely, if, instead of doing flip turns, you saw Katie Ledecky or Michael Phelps sticking their heads up at the walls, gulping air, turning awkwardly half out of the water, then plunging back in for the next lap, they would seem significantly less fierce.

On swim teams in junior high and high school I did a lot of flip turns. Even with the flip turns, I never looked particularly fierce but they were a regular part of my swimming. When I started swimming again a few years ago, I gave myself permission not to include flip turns. It seemed like a good deal: expend my limited energy on the strokes and the laps themselves and give myself a little extra breath and time at the walls. I made this decision intentionally and unapologetically. The goal was more swimming, not “perfect” swimming. During these past few years, I have reserved the occasional flip turn for special circumstances, like the time I felt strong and energized hitting lap number 100 and joyously flipped at the wall to celebrate it.

Lately, I’ve been adding the flip turn back into my freestyle laps. I’m not entirely sure why. I’m considering an open water swim this summer but flip turns are completely unnecessary in lakes, so that’s not it. This most excellent and inspiring ode to the flip turn encouraged me but didn’t push me over the edge. I think it’s just time. Like it was time to get back in the pool a few years ago. Back then, I gave myself permission to swim without flip turns. Now, I’ve given myself permission to flip again (and sometimes, not to flip – as with the earlier deal with myself, I’m not after perfection and I’m not requiring all or nothing).

One of the things I hope this summer’s sabbatical will show me is how to distinguish between the need for rest and the need for persistence. How do I know when I’m hitting a groove I should explore and stick with, versus knowing when to back off, versus knowing when to go harder even though I’m already losing steam? Maybe I’m seeing part of the answer in swimming.

When you hit the wall you have several choices: 1) call it a day, stop swimming, and hang on for dear life, 2) grab as much air as you can every single second your head is out of the water while you turn around inelegantly but practically, then push off and carry on as best you can, or 3) make the turn as smooth and seamless a part of your stroke as possible, flipping around and using the wall itself to propel you in the next direction. They are all valid choices. I’m thankful for my unapologetic miles logged choosing #2. And really curious to see where #3 sends me.

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Photo credit: Screen grab of video shot by P. Chambers, June 2016. Used with permission.

Women like us: I miss Oprah

Oprah_Winfrey_c2007_vargas2040_wikicommons

When I began finding errant hairs growing from my chin and neck, I plucked furiously. Then I called my mom to see what she does about this annoying cosmetic problem.

“On your neck? Huh.”

I tried her twin sister, who also had no personal experience with my problem.

I love them both, but there have been quite a few times when I’ve had to look elsewhere for womanly advice or tips. My mom is a thin, perfectly proportioned, white woman who looks younger than she is and who can walk into any dressing room and look gorgeous in whatever she tries on, which fits perfectly, of course.

I can relate to this experience in the sense that I am also a white woman.

For a long time, I turned to Oprah. Oprah’s like the big sister I never had, ten years ahead. She has an ample chest and curvy figure and dreads dressing rooms like I do. I don’t think I ever watched a show about unwanted facial hair, but there could have been one and, regardless, I’m sure she would relate. By the time her broadcast show went off the air, I was no longer watching daily, though I knew she was there if I had time and needed her. It’s not the same now. We don’t have cable and, in any case, her new shows and channel are a different enterprise, focused on spirit and big ideas – what I do all day anyway – and no help with wild sprouts of hair, so it’s been a while since I could really lean on her.

About 10 years ago, Oprah had a show on perimenopause, which is when I learned that word. Menopause is the time after all menstrual periods have stopped for at least one year. Perimenopause is the weird, sometimes decade-long time of flux between normal monthly cycles and menopause. It’s what a lot of women mean when they say “going through menopause.”

At the time that show aired, I had begun to experience regular migraines, trouble sleeping, sweeping mood swings, the intermittent grip of high anxiety, the aforementioned hair in fun new places, and some other things I can’t remember (bonus: memory is also affected by perimenopause). Before watching the Oprah episode, I had never laid them all out like that in a list because I didn’t think of them as related symptoms. They were just some of the various ways I was falling apart, health-wise.

Oprah knew there were a lot of women like me so she did a show, bestowing the word we didn’t know we needed in our vocabularies, and offering help. The doctor on the show that day commented that we often talk about estrogen levels but it’s actually the interplay between levels of various hormones that causes symptoms and problems. She had a handy PowerPoint-style presentation listing “too high” or “too low” slides with either estrogen, testosterone, or progesterone at the top, and symptoms below each one. When she got to the chart showing low progesterone, it may as well have said, “Deborah Lewis, this is your life.”

Seeing my nurse practitioner shortly afterwards, I said, “I saw an Oprah show and I think I may have low progesterone.” I recited the symptoms I’d previously thought were unrelated and she said, “I think you might be right. Let’s test it.” Then she wrote down the details of the Oprah episode so she’d be prepared when other patients inevitably came in to follow up on the show.

When I asked my mom about perimenopause and menopause, she didn’t know exactly when the change happened. It was masked by a medication she was taking and her cycles had simply stopped by the time she went off the drug. She didn’t remember any problems in the years before that. Neither did my aunt. Everything was smooth sailing in those dressing rooms.

As it becomes clear that I’m one of those women with a long perimenopause, a cornucopia of changes and fun new surprises, I’ve been missing Oprah, wishing for an old-school show on perimenopause, part two, “The Later Years.” Most of my close friends are younger than I am so I’m the perimenopause pioneer. As the eldest granddaughter on both sides of the family, whose grandmothers are dead, and whose mother and aunts cannot provide any useful information about managing this time, Oprah was the big sister I needed and still need sometimes.

Oprah’s the one who could frame expectations for what was about to happen, the one who could say with authority, “Let’s go to another store where the clothes are made for women like us.”

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photo credit: By vargas2040, Cropped by OsamaK [CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Fallow

Collegeville_literarylife

I’ve always liked the word “fallow.” I like the sound of it, the short “a” sound followed by the long “o” sound. I like that it’s almost “follow,” but not quite. Mostly, I appreciate its indication that when it looks as if nothing is happening, looks are probably deceiving. Rest is some of the deepest work to be done.

Here’s how Ken Chitwood recently described it in Sojourners (“A Crucial Ingredient in Justice Work: Rest”): “Leaving a field to lie fallow means leaving a paddock to be unseeded, uneaten, and unspoiled for a season or more. It is one of the best ways farmers can allow the land to replenish its nutrients and regain its fertility. It also helps prevent erosion — the roots of the plants left free to grow help to hold the soil in place against the ravages of wind and rain.”

To lie fallow is to engage in a season of rest. One of the things I love about liturgical life is its emphasis on seasons. We move around the cycle of a year, changing the colors of vestments and paraments, focusing on certain parts of our story and then on others. I’m tempted to say winter is my favorite season of the year because I love the cold and snow and we rarely get enough in Virginia to satisfy me, but the truth is I love every season while we are in it. I love the annual cycle and the delights that belong only to the season at hand, the inchworm-green of new spring shoots, the languorous late-light evenings of summer, the crisp bite and mature colors of fall.

Only sometimes, I have trouble being in the season at hand. I know something about the ravages of wind and rain, exposed roots. Jesus had to be hunted down while he was praying in a deserted place by himself (Mark 1: 35-36) and he regularly took time out and away. This is supposed to be a model for me, for all of us. I also know it’s easier to fill up the empty months of a sabbatical than it is to empty out one day a week for Sabbath. As Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (The Writing Life).

I don’t want to spend my life as a fallow field. But then again, I’m not really in danger of that happening. I am in danger of trying to earn my way to the grace of rest and replenishment.

I’m on study leave this summer, three days in. When I’ve mentioned this, most people have immediately asked what I’m going to do. I suppose I could be studying something “out there,” people do this all the time, take a break from the routine to write a book on church leadership or home canning. I’m on a writing retreat with my writing group this week, but I don’t have a project in mind to complete this summer. I’m going to rest and not-do. I’m trying to “study” myself. I’m lying fallow.

My goal is to resemble a field of clumpy sod, unplanted, no harvest in sight. I hope and trust God will tend me, but I’m going hands-off, list-rogue. I’m asking to be replenished and getting out of my own way so it can happen.

stainedglassview_abbeyworship_collegeville

Looking up and out from worship in the St. John’s Abbey Church, Collegeville, Minnesota

Nora

I feel bad about what I’m about to say, but the first time I watched When Harry Met Sally I didn’t like it. I was in college and trying to like Woody Allen and be “cultured” and I claimed it was a rip off of Annie Hall. I think it was because of the montage sequence showing Harry and Sally ordering in a restaurant, dropping mail at the corner mailbox, and lugging a Christmas tree home through the streets of New York. Something in there – along with Sally’s high-waisted baggy pants and the brimmed hat she wears walking through the park being reminiscent of Diane Keaton – reminded me of Annie Hall. I can remember claiming to think Annie Hall was a much better film, probably because I had just seen it and back then people only used sophisticated revered tones when talking about Woody Allen.

But this is not about him. It’s about Nora Ephron, and so I have to come clean about that embarrassing and off-base first impression/pose I adopted in my misguided youth.

I don’t know how long it was until I gave When Harry Met Sally another try but from then on I have done nothing but love it more and more. I guess that’s appropriate, given their description of the evolution of their own relationship:

Harry: “The first time we met we hated each other.”

Sally: “No, you didn’t hate me, I hated you. The second time we met, you didn’t even remember me.”

Harry: “I did too, I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.”

Sally: “We were friends for a long time.”

Harry: “And then we weren’t.”

Sally: “And then we fell in love.”

Sometimes you do not just know – at least not at first – the way you do about a good melon.

Drop me down in this movie and I can find my way out. Just start me on a line of dialogue and I’ll keep going, like being plopped down in a familiar liturgy or hymn, one you weren’t sure you had memorized until it bubbled up from within. I once bet a lawyer friend who loves When Harry Met Sally as much as I do (and who shall remain nameless in case this is searchable in court documents somewhere) that he couldn’t find a way to slip an actual line of dialogue into his oral argument. Granted, he didn’t go for a laudable degree of difficulty with something like the “stupid, wagon wheel, Roy Rogers, garage sale coffee table” but he did manage to say to the other lawyer, a la Harry on the airport moving sidewalk, “I’ll just let you go ahead.”

But this isn’t really about When Harry Met Sally, either. It’s about Nora Ephron.

I have a deep vein of kinship with Nora though we were generations apart, geographically mismatched, and the only religion she ever wanted to claim was her adherence to the principle that you can never have enough butter. She was a funny feminist, a sensible artist, a die-hard New Yorker, an astute cultural commenter, and a damn fine writer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Nora recently, after watching Everything is Copy, the documentary her son, Jacob Bernstein, made about her. In the film, several of Nora’s friends confirmed my belief that her great and final film, Julie & Julia, is her love letter to love and partnership and marriage, especially her own to Nick Pileggi. I stayed up late to watch the documentary and felt like I’d visited with an old friend when it was over. In the way of devotees, I spent a few days afterwards reading articles about her online, re-reading her essays, and buying books I didn’t already have.

In my internet oblations, I came across this NPR interview I’d never heard, part of a series in which they asked writers to name a scene they wished they had written themselves. Nora chose a scene from another of my all-time favorite movies, Tootsie. Strangely, my relationship to Tootsie, as with When Harry Met Sally, also began with my own stupidity and stubbornness. I was in high school when it came out and I irrationally and snobbily decided that since all of America was raving about this movie, there was no way I would be interested. So I wasted about four years until I saw it in college and then promptly loved it and began a long term relationship with it, too. The point being, of course Nora loved Tootsie.

I don’t know if I have an inner New Yorker, but if I do, she’s named “Nora.” And she probably exists at all because of Nora. I grew up watching and re-watching I Love Lucy with my mom but whenever Lucy picked up the phone to order a side of beef delivered to the apartment, I zoned out when she gave the address, “623 East 68th Street.” It didn’t sound like addresses where I lived (and yes, I know now that it’s a real street but not a real address, unless they lived at the bottom of the East River). There were too many numbers. It didn’t mean anything at all so I simply heard “numbers, numbers, address.”

This was the case until my early 40s when we stayed at my in-laws’ apartment on the Upper East Side and walked everywhere. That weekend I was reading Nora’s I Feel Bad About My Neck for the first time. In the chapter called “The Lost Strudel or Le Strudel Perdu,” Nora shares her quest for a savory cabbage strudel she once had in Manhattan but which had since disappeared. She tried for years to find a bakery that made them until one day a friend gave her a tip about a Hungarian bakery “on Second and Eighty-fifth Street.” I looked up from the book and out the window, thinking about the cross streets and how many long blocks we were from Second. I hollered out to my husband in the other room, got my shoes on, and we set out to find cabbage strudel, returning within the hour with our prize. It was the single most New York moment of my life, thanks to Nora.

If Nora herself had been in the bakery that day, I probably would have been too shy or too play-it-cool-with-celebrities to speak to her, even though I am intensely jealous of Lena Dunham and would love to have been taken under Nora’s wise wings. Even so, I’ve known Nora and her work for a long time and, thankfully, this is the sort of relationship that continues past death. I’ll be re-reading her essays and watching When Harry Met Sally and Julie & Julia until my own end. I’ll keep wishing I’d written any single one of the many oft-quoted lines she penned.

I’ll also continue to feel a little bit bad about my first impressions, but I think Nora would understand.

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photo credit: “Katz’s Deli=When Harry Met Sally,” © 2006 by Aaron_M, CC BY 2.0

Who am I to stand in God’s way?

A sermon preached on Acts 11: 1-18, on April 24, 2016, at Wesley Memorial UMC.

Sheep, getting in the way like we do.

Sheep, getting in the way like we do.

It’s always fun to preach on a passage full of the word “circumcision.”

But, let me quickly add, that it could be almost any word. The point in mentioning circumcision here is not to see how uncomfortable the pastor or the people will become during the sermon. The point is this: there’s a way we do things around here.

In this passage from Acts we are at the cusp of changes the disciples and other followers of Jesus weren’t expecting. At this point, almost everyone who followed Jesus was Jewish. For them, this Jesus stuff wasn’t a casting off of Judaism but the next step in their faith journeys. It follows that the norm for men in the community was still circumcision. All Jewish baby boys went through this religious ceremony and there was no reason to expect that would change. After all, Jesus was also a Jewish man and circumcised.

But at this point in the story, the radical gospel message lands on the fertile soil of other people from other backgrounds. The Holy Spirit Jesus promised whooshes into locked rooms and Gentile hearts and rustles up new followers without asking permission or checking to see who’s a card-carrying Jew.

Those are the first three verses of our passage from Acts: Throughout Judea even the Gentiles are beginning to hear and believe. So Peter is interrogated when he gets to Jerusalem – the seat of religious authority – by “the circumcised believers.” These Jewish Christ-followers at home in the seat of religious power and tradition have a few questions for Peter. They accuse him of going into the homes of the uncircumcised and then eating with them. Explain that! they say. Explain to us how you can get all tangled up with these non-Jewish people, going so far as to be received into their homes and eat at their tables!

Right up there next to circumcision as a marker of Jewish identity were the Jewish dietary laws dictating what was clean and unclean. Other people didn’t keep these laws, so eating with them, in their “unclean” kitchens, sharing their strange and “unclean” foods, was outside the bounds. You’ll remember it’s one of the things people commented on the most when taking offense at Jesus’ behavior – we even preserve the notion of his outlandish behavior in our Communion liturgies, remarking each time we feast that he “ate with sinners.”

Starting with verse four, we’re told Peter offered his explanation “step-by-step.” He tells the Jewish critics that he was praying in Joppa and had a dream, a vision. He saw a large sheet lowered down from the heavens and on the sheet all sorts of animals were depicted – wild beasts and birds and reptiles and four-legged animals of all types. And a voice told him to Get up, kill, and eat! Being a good Jewish boy, Peter snapped back, Absolutely not! I know what’s unclean and I don’t eat things like that – never!

You may remember Peter usually needs the reinforcement of a threefold repetition. The night Jesus was betrayed, he is asked three times if he used to hang out with Jesus and three times he says Absolutely not! Never seen that guy! Two weeks ago in our readings, Peter enjoys a fish breakfast on the beach with the risen Christ and three times Christ asks if Peter loves him and then, three times, commands Peter to feed his sheep (John 18: 15-27; John 21: 1-19).

Three times is a thing with Peter.

So, as with those previous stories, here staring at the sheet of various and wild and unclean animals, the Voice tells Peter three times to eat the things he sees in the vision. Never consider unclean what God has made pure (v.9), it says, then the sheet is pulled back up out of sight into heaven.

In the next moment, there’s a knock on the door. Peter finds messengers from the Gentile Cornelius and, as Peter tells it, The Spirit told me to go with them even though they were Gentiles. When he arrives at Cornelius’s house, Cornelius shares his own dream-message, when an angel told him to send for Peter so that Peter could tell him and the entire household how to be saved.

So Peter starts to share the gospel in this stranger’s house. And the craziest thing happened, he tells the Jerusalem rule-following crowd of critics (vv.15-17): “When I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as the Spirit fell on us in the beginning. I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same gift [God] gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”

When the crowd of believers and skeptics hear this, they back off. They give praise to God for this amazing news – and, they conclude that God is changing Gentile hearts and lives (just like their own hearts and lives) so that they might have new life, too.

Some hearts and minds were changed and some rules broken and released that day. But it’s going to take another four chapters in Acts before these early Christians stop worrying about circumcision as a prerequisite for joining the Christ-followers. Some things don’t change all at once, but in fits and starts.

Some habits die hard.

I’m sure you can think of church arguments in your lifetime about who we eat and spend time with, about who’s truly welcome in our sanctuaries and our communities and who needs to jump another hoop, show they really mean it, look more like those of us who are already at home in religious places and traditions.

What I find puzzling is not that we argue or come at something from different angles. What I find puzzling is when we fail to acknowledge we’ve done this since the very beginning. With the hot breath of the Holy Spirit still warm on the backs of our necks, we were drawing dividing lines to determine who’s on which side. And… we shared stories of surprise and strange visions. We’ve listened, changed our made-up minds, opened wide our doors, praised God for the new vision.

If God gives them the same gift God gives us who already believe in Christ, then who am I? Who are we to stand in God’s way?

Here’s the Good News: it’s not up to us. “The work of determining who is part of God’s kingdom is never ours to do. It is always God’s decision…” (Preaching Helps at GBOD online). We aren’t the gatekeepers. We’re invited guests who’ve been given the mandate of love. We’re encouraged to look for the Spirit of God rustling up disciples we weren’t expecting. We’re allowed and expected to invite them into the fold, to feed those sister and brother sheep, to eat strange foods from strange other traditions along with them.

God does not seem to be recruiting bouncers to keep out the undesirables. In fact, God seems to like to bring home new brothers and sisters from prison and shelters and recovery programs. God seems to want a big family – from east and west, male and female, gay and straight, black and white, poor and rich, mentally ill and mentally well, minimum wage earners and retired millionaires, those who slept peacefully last night and those who were kept awake with worry or loneliness…

Little things like who eats what and who’s been circumcised and who’s memorized scripture and who uses which bathroom and who is married to whom don’t seem to count with God the way we sometimes still try to make them count when we forget and think we are the ones in charge.

God is creating a family and the invitation is open. Who are we to stand in God’s way?

That’s the way we do things around here. Don’t forget it.

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit: “Sheep blocking way at Miranjani top,” © 2014 by Naryneroz (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Seashore

Wintery beach in Yorktown, Virginia.

Wintery beach in Yorktown, Virginia.

My brother and I called the canal at the end of our street “The Seashore.” When Topology Magazine announced its issue focused on water, The Seashore came flooding back into my memory after a long absence. I wrote this reflection on that place and the cusp between childhood and adolescence, land and water. I hope you’ll click over and take a look.

The exuberance of forsythia

forsythia.c2012_b.eckstein

I have friends who hate forsythia. Detest it. Feel the need to proclaim their disdain on social media. For all I know, they probably spit on the bushes when they walk by them. I’ve never tried to plant or tend it so maybe they know something I don’t. Maybe it’s invasive or threatening to other nearby plants. I’m trying to be generous here: maybe they have good reasons for spending their energy hating a plant.

As for me, I delight in it. When we have enough warmish spring days in a row, it peeks its head out with bright – practically neon – yellow blooms, stark against its long, woody, still leafless stems. Everything else in sight – even the early showstoppers like Bradford Pears and cherry trees – is still tucked in for winter and biding its time, when forsythia shows up early to the party, wearing an outlandish hat and too much lipstick, carrying a game of Twister, hollering, “Let’s party!”

In addition to its sheer proclamation of color, I love the way forsythia branches jut out in crazy, spiky, improbable, irrepressible angles, the plant world’s version of the way Elaine used to dance on Seinfeld. It says, This is how I grow, damn it. Woo hoo! It’s spring! I love the way it naturally grows, untamed, wild, exuberant. It pains me to drive past a lawn where someone has taken matters into his own hands, trimming this marvelous beauty into symmetrical bland balls. Forsythia trimmed like this is merely a round bush with a haze of yellow, a herald with his mouth duct-taped so his announcement is garbled. When I see forsythia reined in this way, it reminds me of women who go too far in plucking their eyebrows. Like eyebrows, which on occasion can be too unruly and need a wee bit of help, I understand forsythia requires just a bit – but not too much – pruning help from a restrained gardener, to help it grow into its natural shape without becoming overgrown. Last year’s efforts paying off in early spring blooms; restraint flowering into exuberance.

I’m writing this in the fullness of Holy Week, which follows a fantastic and full weekend of hosting Nadia Bolz-Weber’s visit to Charlottesville, which follows a fantastic and full week of traveling to the Navajo Nation with students on an interfaith service trip. It’s been non-stop lately and I know I’m not the only one.

In the midst of this, the sheer timely gift of forsythia. Something we don’t have to create or remind or schedule, something beautiful that just shows up on time. Something lively, bright, festive, and over-the-top enthusiastic. Something that knows what time it is even when we want to stick our heads back under the covers for another month. Something that simply is – unmanaged, unchosen, uncomplicated beauty. In a leafless, weary world: a gorgeous, energetic, reliable gift of bursting bright beauty.

 

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photo credit: “Forsythia,” © 2012 by Barbara Eckstein, CC BY 2.0

Lax Lent

catholic family ash wed_c2014_rubydw

When, in my adult life, I first heard church folks start talking about “taking on” something for Lent rather than “giving up” something, I thought I would lose it.

I don’t remember observing Ash Wednesday until high school or giving up something for Lent until college. I was still barely getting the hang of any of that when “taking on” became the new “giving up,” but what annoyed me about the change in terms wasn’t only a novice’s frustration. I didn’t like the tone. As in, Giving up is so last Lent. Or, as in, Getting rid of distractions from God and hunger for that which isn’t God, is not enough. Making room in your life to feel that hunger is not enough. You need to do something, too.

I don’t care what anyone else does or does not do for Lent. Really. It’s not up to me to approve and I only care in the sense that a friend or neighbor might need help and encouragement in sticking to their spiritual discipline. Most of the time I don’t share with my students what my own Lenten discipline is, sometimes because it takes me a couple of weeks into Lent to decide, sometimes because it’s too private, but I try to offer them suggestions for their own observances. I try to crack open the ideas we have about it so they can meet God in the strange and wondrous places God’s waiting this year.

This is my favorite Lenten suggestion so far this year: Don’t worry about reading the Bible. And don’t start a mammoth Bible-in-one-year-OK-go-Genesis-page-1 reading plan. Start with setting aside a time and a place – even if you end up reading Twitter during that time. It comes from a colleague’s observations of a bodybuilder, who encourages people to just start going to the gym, even if they only read a magazine once they get there. Making room for the new habit of going to the gym (or daily Bible reading) is the most important part. The rest will come. God will bring it, in the space you hold open.

Why aren’t there more suggestions like this in Christian spiritual life together? Well, because many of us decide to “take on” an hour a day at the gym or “give up” sweets, as if Lent is a season meant for massive self-improvement projects. First lesson: if we could improve ourselves by ourselves, we wouldn’t need Jesus.

Why aren’t there more suggestions like this? Because we don’t believe fervently, deeply, desperately enough in the grace we are already swimming in. Because, no matter how many times we encounter it, the suggestion that resting in God’s presence is prayer enough (without the laundry list wordy prayers, without doing anything else) feels like getting away with something. When I tell students that if they happen to doze off while trying out centering prayer, God will understand and that, maybe, those moments of rest in their sleep-deprived lives could be gifts from God, they humor me. But I don’t think they believe me.

Our toxic culture does not know what to do with space except fill it up with the closest thing to hand. Our nervous, frenzied souls do know what to do with space – but they need encouragement, periods of detox, reintroduction to their natural habitats.

The main reason I resist the “taking on” language is context. The only people I hear talking about this are people who are already too busy, self-critical, and fearful of not measuring up: fast-paced professional people, overcommitted pastors, and worn-thin ambitious college students who already think it’s all up to them. In these contexts, “taking on” is poison – even taking on good and worthy and disciple-making things like visiting prisoners and feeding the homeless. I’m not saying never to engage in those ministries. I’m just saying, if you are the type who is always measuring and always coming up short, no matter how hard you strive and plan and organize and visionboard, maybe this year give space a try. Make your resistance training be the effort it takes not to fill up the time and place you want to reserve for God, to rest in God’s presence. That’s all.

I know this is making some of you itch. Bear with me. Try trusting that even if you think it’s unrepentantly lax, God can meet you in the space of “nothingness” and redeem your “lack.” What have you got to lose?

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Here’s a previous reflection on Lent, including a few other suggestions for unconventional observances.

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photo credit: “Catholic Family Ash Wednesday,” © 2014 by RubyDW, CC BY 2.0

Leftovers and Champagne

champagne for all_meathead movers_sa2.0_c2012

Yes, that’s right. It says “meathead” right there on the picture.

We have a dry erase board on our refrigerator, where I write our menu for the week. Last week, with plans to cook several other nights and plans to stay in on New Year’s Eve, I wrote “leftovers and champagne” in the dinner spot for that night. It represented the perfect combination of industry and relaxation – cook enough on other evenings so that dinner won’t be a production and we can just sip and enjoy.

All week when I passed that reminder I felt clever and satisfied. “Leftovers and champagne” seems almost a lifestyle statement, beyond New Year’s Eve. Be simple and frugal in some places and splurge in others. Be down to earth and no frills, but with an occasional side of frills. Be willing to combine things that aren’t normally thrown together…I could go on, mining the poetry and deeper meaning of my dry erase title-lifestyle.

But I won’t. At least, I won’t be quite as satisfied and smug about it as I tell you how the meaning morphed.

This morning in the pool, I started to wonder if God was drowning me again. I was annoyed at the many schedule changes and inconveniences during winter break, forcing me to go to the campus pool I don’t like, and to find a half-lane to squeeze into in the whopping four lanes leftover after the swim team takes all the others. I was annoyed that things like that still annoy me, even when I can see how small, fleeting, and ridiculous they are. I was feeling stressed out by the unintelligible emails I was receiving from our ministry’s web host and the glaring error message I found when I tried to visit the website earlier this morning. I was mad at myself for running a yellow-then-red light on the way to the bad gym’s ridiculous hours and getting a ticket for it. And I was feeling anxious, that chest-tightening short-breathed worry that’s never any fun and makes swimming notably more difficult.

As I swam, I noted the annoyances and my annoyed posture in response to them. I mentally calculated the days of the month in case I could determine whether any of the anxiety was hormonal, in addition to the situational variety. I kept swimming. I acknowledged how most often, if I’m honest, I want to feel good and have an easy time of it. I felt myself resisting the anxiety and frustration of the morning. Go away! Everything about me was saying No! to all of it.

Suddenly I remembered a time of deep grief after a hard break up, the first time I’d countered loss with compassion and patience rather than anger. In my twenties, my go-to method for break up recovery was to get pissed off, catalogue all the grievances, and eventually convince myself he’d been a jerk anyway. But after this break up in my mid-thirties, I was sad, not angry. And I didn’t want or need to get angry. For the first time, I knew it wouldn’t help me or change the situation. So whenever the sadness welled up and threatened to overwhelm me, I just said to it, sometimes aloud, I see you. I didn’t indulge it, but I didn’t fight it either. I let myself sit with it and, eventually, I could ride out the feelings, which approached and receded like waves.

No, I didn’t become beatifically calm and beautiful as I glided through the pool and glowed from within.

But I kept swimming. I thought about Job and how I don’t really believe God puts obstacles and tests in our way to make us stronger/more faithful/thankful/obedient/whatever, but how I do think God is ready and willing to show us something better and healing in every single moment, no matter where and how we find ourselves. I didn’t get to the I see you stage in the pool, but I tried to stop feeding the beast. I swam and thought about the school crossing guard who was a half block away when the police officer stopped me this morning. The cop was white (and so am I). The crossing guard was black. She looked over several times while I was stopped there, waiting for my ticket. I swam and wondered if she’d been keeping an eye out and how the whole thing might have felt less annoying and a lot more threatening if I was black, too. I thought about my momentarily poor driving behavior, which resulted in a whiny rant and some inconvenience, but not my arrest or worse.

I stopped to squint at the large digital clock. Not enough time for the final 20 laps I was hoping to do. So I did 10 more and didn’t castigate myself for missing the mark.

Afterwards I checked my phone, and the emergency help email I’d sent our tech support alumnus had been answered and the website was back up. I texted my husband about the ticket. I drove home more carefully. I’d been feeling alone and anxious all morning but when I emailed and texted, help came. When I reached out, someone was there to reach back.

I would rather have written about being down to earth with occasional frills thrown in – so clever! I would rather not divulge what a seething mess of vulnerability and bad attitude I am sometimes. But if God can work with this, then who am I to complain or cover? The truth is, it’s New Year’s Eve every day, the same old familiar leftovers sitting right there on the microwave-hot plate, next to the champagne flutes. Futile, bratty splashing and self-centeredness, paired with a robust grace.

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photo credit: “Champagne for All,” © 2012 by Meathead Movers, CC BY-SA 2.0

Campus Ministry Stocking Stuffers

There comes a time when you need to make a list and leave it out next to a plate of cookies… Here’s one I made, with a few suggestions for campus ministers (and others) who are looking for new books, shows, and resources for enlivening faith and community. Take a look over at the National Campus Ministry Association blog…and feel free to leave your browser open where someone jolly might see it and pick up a thing or two for your stocking.

WoodySherman2014_close up Xmas tree with bow and lights