Swimming as resistance

Friday morning I finished the Advent devotional I started in December – and with Ash Wednesday just under 3 weeks away! In case it isn’t already clear from that statement, I’ll be more explicit: I don’t have it all together. Last week, because we had company coming, we cleaned. I am not exaggerating when I say I can’t remember the last time we did that. (But if I had to guess, I’d say it may have also been in December, right before we invited students over for a meal before exams started.)

These are statements of fact, not self-flagellation. I hope they’ll engender some trust so you’ll hear what I’m saying as one thing I’m doing that’s helping me. One thing in the midst of many many undone or poorly done things. One thing that requires planning, fortitude, discipline, and commitment – in the midst of a poorly tended house, spotty devotional life, and slapdash weekly meal planning “regimen.”

It’s important to me that you get this, that you understand I am not the kind of person who has issues of “Real Simple” magazine fanned out on my dust-free coffee table while the kitchen timer goes off on our baking dinner, just as my husband arrives home from work and I am finishing up my at-home Pilates workout. (And all the bills are paid and thank you notes written and volunteer work scheduled, with plenty of “me time” in the mix.)

Got it? Good.

Because I’ve been kicking ass at swimming. I haven’t set a formal goal for the miles I hope to cover this year, but I have been tracking my swimming and so far in 2017 I’ve swum 40.45 miles.

Screenshot of my Go the Distance progress from the US Masters Swimming fitness log.

At the end of January I had to be in another city for most of the week at a denominational gathering whose schedule ran from 8am until 10pm with no breaks or free time, and I called around in advance to find a pool I could swim in that week. It required getting up at 4:30am, to overlap with their lap swimming times and the only free-time available to me, but I did it – every day I was there. I did not get enough sleep that week and most days I only swam a mile, in order to have enough time to get dressed and eat breakfast and be back by 8am. But it was a life-saving move on my part, to get up and move before a day of prolonged sitting, to spend those first few hours alone and focused on myself before being with and focusing on other people the rest of the day.

More than I would like, these days feel rushed and anxious and overfull and underdone. Too much, too fast, and the constant, demoralizing news from Washington, D.C. The word with the most resonance in my circles is “resist.” Resist the administration’s overreach. Resist racist, xenophobic, unjust policies. Resist and refuse to believe this is normal.

Since my time at Standing Rock, I have signed petitions and called and written letters and closed bank accounts. Since the inauguration, I have signed petitions and called and written letters and preached sermons and forced myself to read more news – and to get away from news and offline. I want just about everything to change right now and it’s tempting to spend all of my time and energy in a frenzy of against-ness, an anxiety ball of activity and worry and strategic next-stepping.

This is why a crucial part of my own resistance is swimming. I am resisting the notion that it’s all up to me so I can never stop writing/calling/posting/protesting. I am resisting the notion that a well-lived life amounts to unceasing work and external and recognizable products/results. I am resisting the idea that resistance itself is one thing.

A friend posted on Facebook yesterday that he was cooking a slow-roasted tomato soup, with the comment, “Sometimes #Resistance means cooking!” Yes!

This is not a call to retreat. It’s a reminder that resistance is a long-term activity and we are in need of more sustenance than just the fast-burning fuel of outrage and anger. We need the parts of life that remind us why we bother resisting.

I need swimming. It literally makes me stronger. It literally forces me to breathe. It focuses me and quiets my mind and spirit. It makes me feel fierce. More than once, on the way home from the pool, I have thought, “Take that, Donald Trump!” And while the defiant attitude feels good, what feels even better is giving myself a healthy, anxiety-tamping way to mark my days and my progress. Some swimmers sing songs to themselves as they swim. I usually don’t, but lately there have been a few times when I’ve pictured the iconic scene from Casablanca when the French resistance drowns out the Nazis by singing “La Marseillaise” at Rick’s, “Allons! Enfants de la Patrie!” echoing in my head at the flip turn, pushing me to keep going.

The Advent devotional I finally finished includes this beautiful sentence: “A baby had been born, they were told, who would show people a way out of their small pinched lives, a way to abandon themselves to the ever-present, unstoppable current of Love that carries all things to radiant wholeness” (All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings, Gayle Boss). If resistance is only about winning on Twitter or SNL or even in the actual law, it’s possible we are still living “small pinched lives.” Cooking, listening to and making music, observing Sabbath, reading novels, watching movies, making pottery and art, running, hiking, and swimming…these are resistance, too. These are life-giving fuel for the long road ahead, and they put us in touch with that “ever-present, unstoppable current of Love.”

The bathrooms at my house need cleaning again. There is a fresh pile of crumbs around my stepson’s place at the dining room table. We are almost out of coffee. I haven’t yet read today’s Bible passage for our Bishop’s challenge. I have a sermon to work on and the day’s news to digest. Some of that will get done today.  I will definitely (defiantly and deliciously) swim.

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

My neighbors want me to keep Christ in Christmas

I should start by saying we don’t know many of our neighbors. There’s the one I refer to as The Encroacher for his wild disregard for property lines, and there are the seemingly nice ones across the street who I’ve spoken two twice since they moved in, once when I delivered a welcome cake and the second time when we were all out shoveling snow last winter. There are a few I know by sight from the pool and there’s my accountant-neighbor who I actually look forward to seeing each tax season. Overall, not a great track record for someone who’s supposed to be familiar with loving neighbors.

Keep Christ in Christmas lighted message

It’s bigger and brighter than it seems from this picture I took with my phone.

I do not know the neighbors with the new Christmas lights, the ones who made a large Christmas tree out of lights and stationed it so it shines through their back woods and directly at the main road into the neighborhood. You can’t miss it. When it showed up last week I enjoyed the novelty of the giant lit tree in the midst of the real bare winter trunks, and it was a nice surprise, to be greeted through the woods like that.

After a couple nights away, I drove back into the neighborhood in the dark last night and it was suddenly apparent which neighbors had been busy putting up their lights and decorations while we were gone. I love exterior Christmas lights, so I drove slowly and took in the new splendor of the neighborhood – and I saw that the Christmas tree neighbors had added to their message. They’ve staked out more ground in the woods and you can see from the picture that they want me to keep Christ in Christmas. (I suppose it’s possible they want me to keep a cross in a tree, but I’m going with the simplest explanation being the most likely.)

The woods were brighter. There were more lights to catch my eye on the drive through the neighborhood. I don’t exactly disagree with their message. So why did I struggle to like their full message as much as I’d liked the tree on its own?

I think my trouble with it has to do with audience. If I went to worship and the sermon was about “keeping Christ in Christmas” I’d listen attentively and hopefully for what that might mean in the context of our gathered Christian community. If I met a friend for coffee and he mentioned some specific ways he was attempting to “keep Christ in Christmas,” I’d want to know where he was coming from and what I might glean for myself from his experiences of the season and his personal devotion. In my neighborhood, where most of us don’t know one another well and where we can safely assume we aren’t all Christian, is a prominent drive-by “keep Christ in Christmas” message the best, most faithful way for a Christian to greet her neighbors?

Christmas display of lights

I’m thankful for this neighbor’s candy canes and reindeer.

What if Christ was never in Christmas for some of our neighbors, who might be Jewish or Muslim or Hindu – but who might still decorate their homes in lights at this dark time of year and who might even participate in some of our cultural Christmas traditions? What about the cultural Christians or former/lapsed Christians who also know this as a special time of year, who put up lights and experience holy longing, though they may be estranged from God or religious community right now?   As Christians, is our best seasonal greeting an indiscriminate reminder to observe a religious tradition that not everyone is part of? Obviously, I don’t think so. I would have preferred just the lit tree. I would have even been fine with a message like “Christ’s light shines in the darkness” – biblical and a statement of faith for the person making it rather than a correction for everyone else.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but Christians don’t have a lock on celebrating all he ushers into this broken world. If my Muslim neighbor can demonstrate this with a hug or my non-religious neighbor with festive seasonal lights that don’t have much to do with John’s warnings or Mary’s song, I’m OK with that. In church, we can remind ourselves all we want to why we do all this each December. In the world, I wish we’d preach less and open ourselves more to seeing the lights in our neighbors’ yards. We have never been able to contain Christ, thank God, and we might be surprised by how Christ does indeed shine, even without his name in lights.

Beginnings. Advent.

mitten Advent calendar at hearth

The beginnings of things are sometimes hard to discern, as they are happening. Sometimes we experience that lightening bolt of recognition, a sudden, stark contrast between then and now, seeing in a stranger’s face the one we are beginning to love in that same moment. More often, we realize in the midst of things that they’ve already begun, something new seeping into the familiar terrain, changing the texture like steady gentle rain saturating dry ground. What was hard and dusty becomes damp and spongy, the moment of change imperceptible.

Advent doesn’t officially begin until the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but if you are paying attention to the lectionary you’ll notice the end of one Christian liturgical year and the beginning of the next seep into one another over several weeks before Advent. There are anxious and bored people who concoct “wars” regarding Christmas: that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the way it can be hard to tell where we are in the circle of the year, how professing Christ as Lord of all sounds a lot like talking about his second coming. I mean to point out how, when we are busy with lines in the sand between Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas retail displays, the bareness of winter arrives in the midst of falling colored leaves and pumpkins, gratitude arises weeks before and after Thanksgiving Thursday, and the practice of waiting opens into the necessary miracle of an unclenched heart, making enough breathing space for today.

It’s the space that interests me most. No room in the inn. Census cities full of crowds. Sidewalks bustling, full social calendars, and long lines at the register, where everyone peers down into cell phones while they wait. Even the space in Mary’s day to allow time in solitude for reading before Gabriel shows up. More obviously, the literal space she makes in her own body to carry another body for most of a year. I imagine that was good practice for making space as her son grew up into exactly who she’d been told he would be, and more than she could have conceived.

It’s the space I need most right now, and pray for. The downside of being an accomplished scheduler is any empty space looks like it needs an agenda. I am ready for the unclenching of heart and time, the strangeness of open anticipation, the space for something wholey new and holy to be born. I am ready to lay off organizing my days and to experience making room in myself to receive the gift God wants to give. I’m OK with being pregnant a while, giving attention to simple, daily patterns of eating and sleeping, while God works out the rest.

What if this is the way Advent comes? What if this slow and simple longing for what’s missing in my life is the seed God’s ready to water and tend, if I leave enough room and let myself be tended? This is not a plea against the marketplace or holiday gatherings or Christmas cantatas. It’s a simple prayer, reminding myself that I’m not God, that I need God, and that I’m ready (again) to let God be God.

The carpenter from Nazareth knew long workdays, sweaty lunch breaks, lazy coworkers, small paychecks…delicious dinners, restful sleep, the warmth of family, healing touch. The incarnation means there is nothing secular anymore. No place to hide from God. No part of life God-in-Christ is not intimately familiar with, in human form. We miss this all the time, like most people missed the lowly birth of God into this world. It would have been easy to go on about your census business in Bethlehem the next day, unchanged. Even for the wise travelers who recognized something had happened, did they know what to do with it those thirty years the baby took to grow up and take on his ministry? It’s too easy to hold our breath through “the weeks leading up to,” through shopping lists, long workdays, countdown to vacation, advance baking – as if all of that doesn’t hold the potential for incarnated holiness, too.

Seeping-in texts, festive foods, special soundtracks, candlelight at church and at home. Space looks like these, too, like ordinary spaces and paces transformed, like flickering lights in the yard. Holiness has not escaped the everyday. It’s shining right through the middle of it. If we remind ourselves earlier than normal and linger longer in the music and lights, so be it.

When holiness is harder to see – as it has been this week and too many angry, violent weeks – or, when we forget how beautiful and ordinary and accessible it is, it helps to make a point of seeing and celebrating it. Unmistakably. Longer and larger than a season itself can hold. Until, without quite knowing when the change occurred, our dry-cracked hearts are drenched with new rain.

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

 

 

Room in the Inn

I met a priest once in Hazard, Kentucky, who declared himself an “Adventist.”  He was annoyed with the way Christmas overshadowed its season of preparation and he wanted to make a point.  I understand where he was coming from.  Advent is my favorite liturgical season of the year, all purple and quiet patience, longing and increasing light in the darkest days of the year.

word cloud christmas tree

Now this is how to graciously invite people in while extending ourselves without judgment. (redmondumc.org)

What I don’t understand are people who get angry about it.  Hostile, even.  As in, This is about the baby Jesus, damn it!  Really?  That’s the reason for the season?

I am not prone to exuberant sentimentality but if “the season” encourages more people to extend kindness, practice generosity, go out of their way to include the lonely and the lost, soften the teeniest bit at the calcified edges, stop and enjoy the moment – lights, tree, tastes, textures, rare gatherings of friends and family – then what, exactly, is the problem?

I don’t know about you, but I can always use more generosity, kindness, and compassion in my life.  I’m not so rich in these that I can fritter them away or turn my back when they’re offered.

The windup – and the problem – comes with expecting TV news or entertainment to proclaim the gospel, rather than looking to your faith and your church for that.  The problem with being so uptight about how everyone else is spoiling it is that no one wants to hear the real message if it will come from those same angry lips.  The problem comes with expecting purity out there in the general culture without asking the same of yourself and your actual church.

But the biggest problem I see and the biggest disconnect with the story of Jesus is how un-Christlike these You’re not in the clubhouse and you’re getting it wrong messages are.  And how much we still resemble those clueless disciples who also had trouble hearing what Jesus was saying.  Remember when the disciples stumbled upon someone casting out demons in the name of Christ (Mark 9: 38-41; Luke 9: 49-50)?  The tattle-tales went straight to Jesus and reported on this distressing news, including the fact that they tried to stop him “because he was not following us.”  Jesus rebukes them and says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” 

I’m not saying buying a Christmas stocking and hanging lights makes you a Christian.  I’m saying – because I hear Jesus saying it – it doesn’t make those of us in the church any less Christian when someone outside does this, and it’s not cause for anger and ostracizing.  Jesus, those people are giving Christmas presents and they don’t even understand what Christmas is!  The reply:  Whoever is not against us is for us.

So, swing wide the gates and rejoice!  Enjoy the lights and the fudge and the holiday parties and accept the extra kindness whenever and wherever it’s offered.  The gift of the incarnation is so huge it overflows our limited comprehension, established practices, and boundary lines.  Anyone who is encouraged to be more kind, just, loving, or generous because of “the season” does, indeed, get it.  It’s not up to the church or any God police to proclaim how much.  It’s up to those of us called Christian to recognize it when God shows up – especially in the unlikely and least expected places (manger) or people (Saul).

None of us can completely understand – no matter our reverence or years of Sunday school – the totality of God incarnate in Jesus Christ.  That’s why we keep reading and telling the story and trying to live more faithfully into it.  This much is clear:  We are sharing in a gift we all receive, not a treasure just a few of us jealously guard.  Why would we want to fence it in?

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graphic credit:  © 2013 Patrick Scriven & Karyn Kuan, Redmond UMC

Dwell

A sermon preached on Matthew 3:1-12 and Isaiah 11: 1-10 at the Wesley Foundation at UVA.  (Due to icy weather last week we revisited the texts from the second week in Advent last night, for Advent 3.)  

carpenter's shop wood shavings

John the Baptist is attractive and repellant.  The Duck Dynasty guys wish they had beards as long and unruly as his!  He wears camel’s hair and eats locusts and warns everyone to repent – turn around, now!  He’s a wild visionary who’s made camp in the desert.  I find those images attractive.  I can picture him with a kind of charisma, speaking the hard truth people crave hearing, baptizing people and saying Wait it out.  He’s coming.

But he repels us, too, doesn’t he?  He’s way out past the edge of civilization, and hanging out with him seems a little risky.  Who’s coming after him, exactly?  And will it be someone as edgy and scary as John?  He seems especially angry with the Pharisees and Sadducees – how do we know he won’t turn on us next?

Then there’s the passage from Isaiah, which makes me scratch my head and ask where the parents are.  A child young enough to still be nursing is playing right over the hole of an asp?  Really?  Who thinks that’s a good idea?  And are we really supposed to believe wolves and lambs are going to get all snuggly with one another?  Cows and bears will go out into the field together to graze – on grass?  Lions will be satisfied feasting on straw?

Artists have depicted these mixed up unlikely scenes in religious art for thousands of years but they are still hard to imagine, aren’t they?  Are we meant to use these as guides to life in the future?  Or is this “just” poetry? 

We read about strange desert prophets and unimaginable peace between creatures we know to be natural born enemies – and we read this in Advent as we prepare for Christmas and as we remember and anticipate Christ’s promise to come again.  What does it mean to spend this season waiting?  To hear the prophet’s words and see the artists’ renditions and wonder if we are any closer to these promises being fulfilled than we were last year?

It’s easy to get confused about exactly what and who we are waiting on.  Lately Twitter and Facebook and the rest have been abuzz with tales of Pope Francis and his critics.  People who’ve given up on the church or been hurt by its scandals see in the Pope’s passion for the poor another way of being Christian.  It’s actually the original, Jesus-like way, but so many of us have done such a poor job of imitating him that many people no longer recognize this as “normal” Christian behavior.  In fact, some folks are so unfamiliar with the Jesus who was born to unwed, poor parents and spent his life overturning tables and expectations, that they fear maybe the Pope has gone astray somehow.

What are we waiting for?  Who is coming to be with us?

Here’s what I know:  it is never what we expect.  We, who like to put our faith in conservative or liberal, will be confounded.  We, who like to think we are getting pretty good at pulling up on our own bootstraps, will be surprised when we are lifted up.  We, who feel like failures, will find failure is one of God’s favorite materials to work with and transform.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid… (Isa. 11: 6)

Bear fruit worthy of repentance.  Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham…(Mat. 3: 8-9)

It might be “just” poetry, but it’s interesting to me how specific and physical Isaiah’s images are.  We don’t hear about unicorns or ewoks – it’s known enemies like lions and lambs, cows and bears.  Real creatures we have seen with our own eyes – behaving in strange, “unnatural” ways.  Scary-attractive John does this too, out in the desert.  He doesn’t sit around looking “spiritual” and talking in vague unachievable non-physical ways.  He says prepare.  Turn around.  Bear fruit.  Don’t think you know where you come from so you’ll be fine.  See these stones?  Feel this water, be baptized.  Wait and watch for the one coming next.

Isaiah promises “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  On that day …his dwelling shall be glorious” (vv. 9-10).   God’s dwelling shall be glorious.  To dwell…to remain for a time; to live as a resident; to live in a particular place.  Not generally, euphemistically alive – living in real time in a particular place.  Like a stable in Bethlehem in the middle of a census.  Like Nazareth, amidst the sweet-smelling curlicues of wood in your father’s carpentry shop.  Like Galilee, hanging out with fishermen, feeding throngs of people with a few measly scraps of bread and fish.  His dwelling shall be glorious.  His dwelling.  His living in a particular place, in a particular body.  Jesus of Nazareth.  Fully human, fully divine.

We weren’t expecting that. 

Sometimes we still aren’t.  It’s a little too mysterious and unnatural for our imaginings.  How could God confine what’s God to a body like this?  Why would God want to get that particular?  This whole incarnation thing puts a real cramp in our tendency to want to separate body and spirit.  If God – the ultimate in Spirit – finds a human body worthy of dwelling in, who are we to question it?  Who are we to find human bodies less worthy?

Who are we to ask God to be a little less particular?  When Jesus said visiting the sick and imprisoned is the same as visiting him, he meant that in a spiritual way, right – we can pray for prisoners without visiting the prison and shaking their criminal hands, right?  We can love the poor from a distance, can’t we?  Isn’t it enough to give to the Food Bank without actually sitting down for a meal with our hungry neighbors?

We don’t get to have a “spiritual,” disembodied Advent or Christmas – or life.  Our job is to dwell in this uncertain, mysterious promise, to inhabit our imperfect maddening bodies more fully as places of divine presence and revelation.  Our calling is to look for Jesus in each face we see  — Pope, Palin, pauper, prince, people right next door…

The One we call Emmanuel – God with us – is always ready to be born and revealed in new ways in the midst of our lives and established routines.  And it’s never what we expect.  So we read strange poetry and listen to strange prophets and try to prepare.   

It’s an attractive and a repellant message.  It’s a promise that means no escape from here and now.  These bodies and this world were good enough for Jesus to dwell in and they are the things through which the Kingdom of God comes near.   

Thanks be to God!

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photo credit:  © 2008 Rob ShenkCC BY-SA 2.0

 

Tip of the Iceberg

Sometimes I wish we still wore mourning armbands.  The kind Jimmy Stewart wears in It’s a Wonderful Life at the board meeting after his father dies.  That simple black band around the upper arm signaled to everyone else something was up.  Maybe you wouldn’t have known who had died when you saw a teacher at the school wearing one, but that signal would have prompted you to say, at least, “I’m sorry for your loss.”  iceberg

One of the strangest sensations for a mourner is the sense that the rest of the world can somehow keep turning and bustling while time stands still for her.  Absorbed by grief, routine questions like “Would you like room for cream in that?” can suddenly seem out of place and too normal to fit the terrain of her new world.  I wonder if having the stranger, the barista, say “I’m sorry for your loss…Would you like room for cream?” would help.  I wonder if that outward signal to others to make some room for mourning made those interactions less bizarre.

Death has come near several times this fall.  Not to my innermost circle but close enough – too close for comfort.  Three people cut down well before we expected.  I learned about two of the deaths online.  Distance and screens didn’t make them easier.  I’ve found it difficult to mourn, to know how to express feelings and connections not readily apparent to those in my daily, physical community.

Meanwhile the calendar turns.  Advent arrives.  Trees and decorations go up.  Special playlists serve as the seasonal soundtrack.  We cook dishes reserved for this time of year.  All those physical, sensual triggers that this is a different time now.

Like the mourning armband, reminding others – and the wearer herself – to make room for grief.  This is a different time now.

We rely on rituals to cue our behavior and mindset.  Sleep experts advise establishing and maintaining certain rituals, signals to your mind and body that it’s time to slow down and sleep.  Dark, quiet, cool room.  No screens for an hour before bed.  Same time every night…  Eventually your mind and body recognize the signals sent by the rituals so that brushing your teeth and turning off the screens starts you yawning.  Similar to the way listening to Christmas music while baking helps you get in the spirit of things.

What did we lose when we lost the mourning armbands?  Grief – an iceberg whose puny tip showed up as an armband for a few months – became even more hidden, less able to be shared.  More private, less communal.

Put yourself back in the coffee shop, in a hurry, preoccupied by your own agenda.  When the man in front of you fumbles for his wallet, appears spacey, takes too much time, and doesn’t know how to answer the cream question, how exasperated are you?  What if that man were wearing a simple black armband?  Would that give you the signal to go easy, make room, and let it be?  I suspect it would.  I imagine the odd relief the band would give its wearer, not having to explain anything out of the ordinary but also wearing a sign of his emotional and spiritual journey – literally – on his sleeve.  Exposed and protected by the same signal.

Advent and the incarnation it heralds proclaim the bold, unnerving story:  God lives here, too.  It’s not “out there” or “later” or “in spite of” this world and the bodies we inhabit.  The place of God’s revelation is in the midst of our lives and there is no place to hide but every place to be holy.  Exposed and protected by the same sign. 

Most of the year bodies are just bodies and time is just time.  Death reminds us that bodies are the only way we know one another, the only medium we have for encounter.  Advent proclaims time is not “just” anything.  It’s holy.  Permeated with the presence of God.  All those gingerbread-Baby-It’s Cold-Outside-fir-scented-purple-candles-lessons-and-carols-once-a-year signals to wait a minute.  Take it in, sense by sense, ritual by ritual.  Can’t you see?  Feel?  Taste?  Hear?  Real, sensual, physical signals – just the tip of the iceberg – reminding us to make room for the One who came into time, into a human body, and filled it with holiness.

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photo credit: Sunset Iceberg 2, CC / Free Cultural Works

Advent: Embodiment and Cultivation

old hand plow

There is no way to be a spiritual person without your body.  There is no enlightened height you can reach where having a body is no longer necessary for your life.  This is the package we come in:  dust and breath, body and spirit.

It’s the package Jesus came in, born with all the human vulnerability and fragility we experience (naked, poor, manger) while still, mysteriously, being God.  Fully human, fully divine.

Advent is an invitation to consider your body.  As we anticipate the feast of Christmas, God’s incarnation (embodiment) in Jesus Christ, how is God calling our attention to our own embodiment? 

I’m talking with college students tonight about de-stressing.  Tomorrow’s the last day of classes so you can imagine their stress level.  Like the rest of us, they tend to think in terms of “when this is over.”  When this semester is over, I will read that novel.  When I graduate, I will learn to cook.  When I have a real job, I will make time every day to pray.  When I land that promotion, then I’ll have enough money.  When my kids are older, then I’ll be able to exercise….

The obvious problem with this thinking is there is never a perfect time to do the hard, counter-cultural work of cultivating our lives.  It’s far easier to let life happen to us, gathering us in a huge rolling snowball of stress and hurry and other people’s agendas.  There is no perfect time, thus, every time is perfect for this life’s work. 

The other problem with this thinking is we are always training ourselves.  What we practice is how we live.  A life spent out of control and waiting for perfection is just that.  A life spent choosing – even in very small ways – to get out of the way of that huge snowball, is a life of slow, steady cultivation.  Of body and spirit.

Advent has already gotten off to a rocky start for me but I am trying to remember and practice exactly these things.  I’m looking forward to the wisdom of my students as we talk together tonight.  I know tomorrow will be just as imperfect and lovely as today.  So, in this season of waiting, I am not waiting to practice what I preach, even as I wait on the mystery of Christmas.

Here are a few tips I’m sharing with students tonight, ways to help bring body and spirit together more intentionally.  Blessings as you cultivate an embodied spirituality.

Practice resting in God for 3 minutes a day.  Sit in a comfortable position and breathe deep belly breaths.  Try to focus your attention on physical sensations and the sound/feel/movement of your breath.  Let that be enough prayer for these three minutes.  Do not try to be “holy.”  Just be present.  Pay attention without judgment.  Don’t “say” anything to God; just know it’s enough to sit still in God’s presence without controlling or narrating the encounter.  No matter how rushed you are, I guarantee you always have 3 minutes.  Choose to use them this way.

Set aside a time each day or each week to be completely offline.  Do it for at least an hour or two, but a whole day is wonderful.  You don’t have to pray and meditate that whole day/time but as you go about time offline, notice how and where you are.  Being connected isn’t “bad” but it can be disorienting (taking you to other places and people than those where and with whom you actually are) and a huge time suck (“just one minute” online turns into an hour) and the frenetic, hyperlinked nature of it contributes to a racing, non-resting mind and spirit.  Choose to check out and live a human pace for discreet periods each day or week.  It will put things in perspective.

Before you eat a meal, before you even offer a prayer before your meal, take three deep breaths.Notice the feel of the cool air entering your nostrils and the warmer air leaving.  Three deep, slow breaths.

Do the same thing right before you open your email in the morning or start the mountain of laundry.  Three deep, slow breaths.

Drink water.  As much as you can possibly stand.

Sleep.  Make this one of the choices you exercise.  This is another way of expressing your confidence and trust that God can keep the world spinning without your help for a few hours. 

Sleep without your electronic devices on your pillow or nightstand.  If your phone is also your alarm clock, set your phone to airplane mode, then set the alarm.  Then turn it off and leave it alone until it wakes you up at the appointed time.

Move.  If you are too tired or busy to do an actual workout, at least try a few stretches or walk around the block.  Get out of your head and into the rest of you for a few minutes.

 Eat.  Try to make it nourishing food.  Try enjoying it instead of wolfing it down.  If you know you’ll be busy, take a few minutes to stock up on easy, healthy snacks you can grab in a hurry (rather than ordering late night pizza because you don’t have any groceries).

Prepare.  Don’t just get up and start running until you drop – choose what makes your list for today and how you will go about it all.  Yes, the choices might not be ideal, but you do still have choices…What really has to get done today? (Exam at 2pm, call Mom on her birthday)  What can wait? (Reorganizing my shoe or spice collection, researching best post-graduation trips to Europe)  Remember that you need to eat, drink, sleep, and spend at least 3 minutes resting in God today, too.  Write down those things and the things that really have to get done today.  Then take a look at the list:  is it reasonable (can a non-bionic human being actually accomplish these things in the waking hours of a day)?  If it is, great – that’s your guide for the day and for saying “no” to other things that try to worm their way into your list.  If it is not reasonable, take a second look.  Can anything be taken off the list?  Is there a way to move anything to another day?  If all of those are “no’s” then decide how much time and effort you will give to each of your list items in order to get them done – this will likely mean that you won’t be doing all of them at 100% but that’s OK.  Choose for that to be ok for these items on this day. 

Remember God loves you exactly as you are, with all of your unfinished business and half-assed efforts.  God loves you no matter what happens on the exam or the relative cleanliness of your house or your Christmas shopping list.  This hard-to-love, beautiful you who God loves is the one you are also called to love.  You cannot “love your neighbor as yourself” if you don’t love yourself.  Start now.  If you are good enough for God to love, you are good enough.  Trust that.

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photo credit:  © 2006 Jonathunder, CC BY-SA 3.0

Travelers

sign post along the path reads "difficult path - impassable after heavy rain"I traveled solo for a long time.   Single, with friends and family all over the globe and a love of the road, meant I developed habits to keep me safe, on schedule, traveling light, and unnoticed.

I am the kind of person who is ready to de-plane well before we pull up to the gate.  When we get there, I am standing in the aisle, meticulously organized and ready to walk, waiting behind the person who can’t remember where he put his scarf when he sat down.  I am the kind of person who checks her tickets and writes down emergency numbers.  I try hard to sleep on the transatlantic flights because when I get to London alone and still have a couple of hours to go until I arrive at my friends’ house, I need to be alert and quick and get on the right train without calling attention to myself, the solo American.

When I left to study abroad in France during college, the USA was in the midst of a spat with France over air rights and Libya.  France started requiring visas and word went out that Americans should keep a low profile.  Experienced fellow ex-pats assured me that passing for Canadian would be the way to go if the going got tough.  I took it to heart and tried to blend in.  Or at least not stand out as American right away.

I read Rick Steves and pared down what I considered necessary for a 2 week visit.  Traveling alone means that it all has to fit on my person or in my hands.  God forbid, I ever end up somewhere looking for a trolley that I still can’t push because of the mountain of suitcases I’ve brought.

Backpacking also contributed to my thoughtful, scant packing skills, honed further on my many treks into the Smokies.  If you’re headed out into the woods for a few days, everything you take has to be useful and absolutely necessary, and fit in your pack.

Later, when I started taking trips with friends who, according to me, packed too much, I felt superior.  Streamlined.  In the know.  I was the svelte and efficient traveler who didn’t need help to manage my bags and no one was waiting on me.

I have people waiting on me now – husband and son and a passel of students.  And I do a lot of waiting on them.   I’m working on the superiority thing.

No matter how many advance packing lists we devise or how little room our caravan of cars has, students always show up for mission trips with too much luggage and big, gangly, sloppy sleeping bags spilling out of their ties.  The guitar always ends up on top of everything else in the back of my car, leaving just a sliver of rear view left in my mirror.  We never move through an airport or a restaurant or a town square without being noticed, all 25 or more of us laughing and talking loudly over top of one another, clearly “not from around here.”

When I travel with my family people usually notice as soon as we get out of the car.  My stepson has autism and needs to jump up and down and make a lot of noise.  Absolutely not an incognito experience, making a pit stop or a visit to Starbucks.  Things take longer with him and he is not generally interested in whatever schedule we have in mind.  As my husband says, “He can wait you out.  He has all the time in the world.”

During seasons like Advent and Lent, I tend to lean on journey images…  Making the Advent pilgrimage to Christmas.  Clearing space in our lives and hearts for God to show up along the paths we travel.  Allowing ourselves to be surprised by the turns in the road…  And, though, I can’t claim this was part of my solo traveling ethos, it does seem that the less baggage we lug into the season the more open our hands and hearts are for what God wants to give.

The thing is, God gives us what we need, but rarely expect.  Apparently I needed a noisy, jubilant, jumping son and a crowd of witnesses who are still learning to pack lightly.  I know I needed my traveling partner husband (who’s not half bad at packing, by the way).  Perhaps my solo traveling habits weren’t formed for my own speed and convenience but so that my hands and my life would be open enough to lend a hand to my fellow travelers with the huge, toppling trolleys.

I love knowing I can get myself around the world solo.  I love remembering those times and adventures.  But the adventures I am having now are wearing away at my rough edges.  Almost none of my trips are solo any more but I love the company.