My Labyrinth Walk

Tonight I walked a labyrinth.

I first learned about labyrinths in seminary, and have wanted to walk one for years, and yet somehow I never have.

Tonight our pastor explained that some people like to view the labyrinth journey as one towards self-awareness, towards an inner understanding and union with God within. The journey towards the center can be viewed as a walk of petition, seeking guidance and accompaniment from God. The journey outward can be a walk of praise and thanksgiving, celebrating God’s presence in your life.

So I started in, full of expectation and hope for the spiritual awareness that was surely to arise deep within me…. and nothing happened. Step by step I trod, waiting expectantly for the awareness of the Spirit, for some divine revelation, for some knowledge of what I was going to get out of this experience. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

I felt crowded. My personal space was invaded by quite a few women like me who also wanted to walk the labyrinth, meaning that through the twists and turns we were often turning sideways to avoid collisions, breathing in each other’s perfume, staring at each other’s bare feet.

Sometimes I don’t like people very much, which is quite ironic for a pastor. I’m an introvert. I often view spiritual activities as solitary activities. I wanted very much to find peaceful union and contemplation with God on my own on my labyrinth journey, and yet here were all these other people, walking and breathing and thinking and existing around me. It was very distracting.

So I started praying. God, help me discover what you want me to find. I focused on repeating the prayer a few times. A few steps later, a clear answer resonated within me. Seek me. Seek me. Seek me. With each step, I felt thus instructed.

So I started seeking. And suddenly, the Spirit was there. I could feel God in the soles of my feet as I strode across the canvas of the transportable labyrinth. I could sense God in the pleasant smell of the oil diffuser placed delicately out of the way. I could feel God in the gentle rhythm of my bones with each step I took. My body became aware of God’s presence, but my mind was still rejecting the bodies of the women around me.

Seek me. Seek me. Seek me.

I kept walking.

I don’t know how it happened, but by the time I was about to enter the center of the labyrinth, a realization hit me with heart-sinking shame: the bodies around me were not distractions from God. The bodies around me were God. God incarnate, the imago dei, all around me. It was as if Jesus himself suddenly appeared to me on my way to Emmaus, and I was shocked to learn he had been there all the while. And I had vainly and selfishly tried to push him away.

My sisters and I gathered in the center, forming a wordless circle, breathing in union, existing with God together.

And on the journey out, as I began walking, I felt a clear resonating mantra: The ground of your being is found on the journey.

I didn’t even know I was seeking the ground of my being. But I felt such immense relief in knowing where to find it.

You see, I’ve been feeling rootless lately. I’ve been in discernment regarding my call to ministry, and I’ve had trouble seeing a clear picture of the future. I’ve been reaching and yearning for a certainty, an end point, something I can look at and cling to and say, “This is my purpose in the world.” So God’s response on that labyrinthine journey was to tell me to look around at God’s glory in the present moment, to let tomorrow take care of itself, and to remember I do not walk alone.

May it ever be so.

Amen.

 

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Sabbath Morning

Verse 1

The morning comes on strings of light
slowly pulling ‘cross the night.
The brightening for which you’ve longed,
the music of a new day dawned.

Too long you’ve wept for broken dreams.
Nothing now is as it seems.
Aching spirit thirsts for streams
of grace to quench, cleanse, and redeem.

Chorus

‘Cuz I’m a mess and so are you.
Come lay it down and be made new.
Nothing else you have to do.
Undending love was made for you.

Verse 2

Shake the dust of sleep away.
Stand barefoot at the windowpane.
Watch the sun and sky embrace.
Allow your heart to greet the day.

Thrust upon the altar dressed
to carry all your life’s distress,
each heavy burden you possess.
Now enter into Sabbath rest.

Chorus

‘Cuz I’m a mess and so are you.
Come lay it down and be made new.
Nothing else you have to do.
Undending love was made for you.

Verse 3

You’re not alone now, look around.
Tired eyes here too abound.
Drink them in as they do you.
Fill up on love like morning dew.

The music urges you to sway,
your aching body made to play.
Thrust out the pain deeply inlaid.
And shake the lonely lies away.

Chorus

‘Cuz I’m a mess and so are you.
Come lay it down and be made new.
Nothing else you have to do.
Undending love was made for you.

Bridge

Unending love
unending love
unending love
was made for you.

Unending love
unending love
unending love
was made for you.

Conclusion

Your heart is full now but you know
that emptying’s just how it goes.
Like breath that gives us love and life,
healing all our wounds and strife.

Unending love
unending love
unending love
was made for you.

Ash Wednesday 2015

Today the journey toward Jerusalem begins.

Today we remember many things. We remember that we are mortal. We remember that we came from the dirt of the earth, and to that dirt we will return. We remember that we are nothing more than dust.

We will die one day. It’s a fact we all know, but we don’t want to think about it until it happens to us, or to someone we know. I see it everyday as a hospital chaplain. People with cancer, or COPD, or heart disease. They all have similar questions: Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong? I thought I was healthy.

Death is a scary thing.

I’m beginning to think more and more that Lent is mostly about death. After all, we practice asceticism with pomp and circumstance, smearing ashes on our heads for the world to see, loudly proclaiming via social media posts what we’re sacrificing in the name of God. We practice “dying” to chocolate, or desserts, or carbs. We want to “die” to bad habits, to enter into a period of going without for the sake of the gospel. It’s supposed to prepare us for the joy of Easter. But is that really what happens? I’m not sure.

Self-sacrifice is a big part of Lent, but I think maybe we can frame it differently. If Lent is about death, then I want to die to self-indulgence when it means others don’t have enough. I want to die to my systemic participation in systems of oppression and injustice. I want to die to the ignorance that blinds me to the suffering of others. I want to die to the myths of the broken world, and rise again with the truth of the gospel in my heart.

So this Lenten season, I am thinking about death, not in terms of going without, but as a way of journeying with Christ toward his own death. Following Christ means obeying him. It means living as a disciple in both word and deed. It means letting him be taken from Gethsemane and hung on a cross. It means deep, deep suffering and loss.

There’s something else it means too. But we have about 40 days (minus Sundays) until we get to that part.

So for now, as I smear ashes on the foreheads of nurses and care partners throughout the hospital this day, as I read scripture and pray for forgiveness, I will remember that without the work of God’s holy Spirit, I would be inanimate and lifeless dust in the ground. But I’m not. I get to be Christ’s hands and feet instead, moving about the earth and proclaiming the good news of the gospel. This annual journey is about preparing myself for that proclamation, to share it faithfully and with great joy.

Let us enter into the stillness of the season. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Let it be. Amen.

Shrove Tuesday

Happy Mardi Gras! It is a fat Tuesday indeed.

My class was cancelled this morning due to the ice storm that has hit Nashville and made for hazardous driving conditions. So, in honor of the day, Stephan and I made pancakes for breakfast.

And I got to wondering, where does the tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday come from? Does it originate from all the pancake breakfasts and dinners held in churches all over the country on this day? Is it simply about getting fat before Lent? Or is there more to it?

I went to Wikipedia. Turns out, the practice of eating pancakes dates back to before the Christian era. Wikipedia says that the pagan Slavs believed the gods were fighting in the time between winter and spring, and it was their job to help the god Jarilo win in the battle to bring back spring. So they ate pancakes because they symbolize the sun and warmth. Isn’t that interesting?

So we as Christians, like we do with so many of our holidays, have sort of made this one our own. We eat pancakes following the tradition of “Fat Tuesday,” or the time we indulge ourselves in fatty foods in preparation for the fasting of the Lenten journey. The word “shrove” comes from “shrive” which means to confess, or prepare for repentance, which is what Lent is all about. So on Shrove Tuesday, we over-indulge ourselves, eat pancakes, and prepare for our journey of fasting and repentance.

Thanks Wikipedia.

When I got to work this afternoon (the roads had thawed enough for me to get in), the pastoral care department was also celebrating the day with red beans and rice and a big fat King Cake. It even had the baby inside!  For anyone who doesn’t know, the little plastic baby is supposed to be baby Jesus, and whoever finds the baby in their slice of cake is responsible for buying the next year’s cake. These practices are traditional to New Orleans Mardi Gras. As one of our priests was born and raised in New Orleans, he was our judge for authenticity. He said we passed.Then we listened to traditional Mardi Gras music from New Orleans to celebrate this special day.

And now I’m in my office trying to prepare for my Ash Wednesday service tomorrow morning. This will be the first time I’ve been the one imposing the ashes. I’m very excited about it, but also nervous. But it’s just another chance for me to grow in my pastoral identity! So I’m working on this service and I’m thinking about my own preparations for Lent. We’re all getting ready for a journey towards Jerusalem. As I turn toward Jerusalem, as Jesus did, leaning into the darkness of the unknown, preparing for the suffering and sadness ahead, I have to ask myself: What can I do to help me on the way?

The practice of giving up something for Lent is something I’ve been familiar with for as long as I can remember, even if I haven’t always participated in it. In the past I’ve given up swearing, fried food, and chocolate. I’ve also committed to adding in spiritual practices, like daily devotionals or meditation, which honestly have mostly been complete failures. So what to do this time around?

I’ve been thinking about my body a lot lately. I’m slow. I’m sluggish. I’m tired. I’m resistant to movement. I’m Netflix obsessed. I think part of my Lenten journey will consist of eating better, more nutritious foods, and stretching my body to do things it’s not used to doing, like jogging, and yoga, and dancing. And with every sore muscle I will think about how I’m strengthening myself for the journey.

Now I really have to finish this service.

Happy Mardi Gras to you and yours. Let it be. Amen.

Lessons from Buechner

We have a new devotional text in our pastoral care office here at the hospital. It’s Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life (Harper Collins, 1992). To start the day off with some centering and prayer, I read his words of wisdom for today, February 15th. He writes,

Because the word that God speaks to us is always an incarnate word – a word spelled out to us not alphabetically, in syllables, but enigmatically, in events, even in the books we read and the movies we see – the chances are we will never get it just right. We are so used to hearing what we want to hear and remaining deaf to what it would be well for us to hear that it is hard to break the habit. But if we keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, if we listen with patience and hope, if we remember at all deeply and honestly, then I think we come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that, however faintly we may hear him, he is indeed speaking to us, and that, however little we may understand of it, his word to each of us is both recoverable and precious beyond telling. In that sense autobiography becomes a way of praying, and a book like this, if it matters at all, matters mostly as a call to prayer.

God’s word is such a tremendous thing to hear. It whispers in the sound of snow drifting silently to the earth (in the forecast for tonight and tomorrow). It floats on Debussy’s piano notes that lift my heart as I write these words. It shouts in the thunder, in the clanging of cymbals, in the yells of delight of friends gathered around a table recounting stories from our past. I hear it in the new growth of the grass in my yard as we prepare for spring. I hear it in my husband’s voice when he tells me how much he loves me before I leave for work in the morning. I hear it in the hands of nurses who softly pat the arm of their patients. And I hear it in my own story, as I listen to my life, God speaking to me and through me.

I hope you listen to your life. Listen for the word of God, that voice that called you forth into being from nothingness, the voice that creates and recreates continually. You know the voice, just as it knows you. We don’t always understand it but, as Buechner says, it is precious.

Amen. Let it be.

Lent 2014

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day we are reminded that we are from nothing more than dust, and to dust we will return.

It’s an uncomfortable thought, isn’t it?

A few months ago I wrote a post about bodies and the harmful Christian dualism that pits our bodies against our souls. We preach and teach as if our bodies are nothing more than temporary containment facilities that we can one day escape if only we deny our “fleshly desires” for long enough to make it to heaven. I wrote about how I thought that was the wrong way to go about loving ourselves and each other. I wrote that to shame ourselves and each other because of our embodiment was an act of isolation from God, who created all bodies. All we have to go on in the great mystery of life is accessed through our divinely given embodiment.

But, as I sit here on this Ash Wednesday, pondering my undeniably dusty past, and my eventual and inevitable dusty future, I wonder how to reconcile the fullness of embodiment with the fear of nothingness. This pondering begs the question of temporality: Where have we been? Where are we going?

Ash Wednesday serves to remind us Christians that we enter this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing. From dust to dust. And this makes me anxious.

I’m anxious because I don’t have the answers. I have no lived experience apart from this body. I don’t know what it feels like to be nothing, to have no consciousness. I don’t know how to meet God apart from what I know of this earthly existence. And this anxiety leads to fear and uncertainty about what happens next.

But I believe that God reveals God’s self and God’s will to us in Scripture, in our traditions, in our reason, and in our experience. And I believe that our bodies crave this revelation. We seek it out in ways we don’t even always understand, through ritual, praise, thanksgiving, prayer, devotion, and deep intellectual study. We seek to see God in the bodies of those we love, in our families, faith communities, and in our neighborhoods. And in all of these revelatory encounters, one thing continues to reassure those of us with proclivities towards existential fear and uncertainty: Resurrection.

The New Testament hinges completely upon the promise of the resurrection. The gospels presuppose and proclaim it. Paul tells us that Christ is but the firstfruits of a promise for new life for all Creation. We are told that we are in the middle of this renewal right now, in this one life, in this very moment. But we know that we are still waiting for this promise to be ultimately fulfilled, that the Kingdom of God is here but also coming. We look around and see poverty, hunger, and despair, and we know this can’t be the end. We have to hope in God’s promises even just to make it to another day.

We are in the in-between. It’s a hard place to rest. To wait. To hope. To lament. To expect with great joy. But the season of Lent teaches us how to live into this space faithfully, patiently, expectantly. Because we believe in the promise of resurrection.

Because I believe fully in the power and wonder and mystery of new life for all, I am embarking upon this Lenten journey with fear and trembling. From dust I became aware of myself. From myself I became aware of the love of those around me. From the love of those around me I became aware of the love of God. From the love of God I became aware of the particularity of infinity, and the infinity of particularity. And that’s as far as I can go right now. So I have to pause. And in this pause the whole world waits for healing.

Come, Lord Jesus. Kyrie eleison.

Flesh or Spirit, Body or Soul?

I want to talk about bodies.

We could talk about sex, or food, or fashion, or exercise. We could talk about our favorite sounds or smells. We could talk about modern art, why I love it, why you hate it. Or how about we talk about our body backgrounds, like how our race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc., etc., affects the way we view our own bodies, and the way other people view our bodies, and the way we view the bodies of everyone else.

The fact is, whatever we talk about, we have no experience outside of our bodies. And we have no way of communicating our experience without our bodies. The act of talking requires a mouth. Writing requires a hand (or, thanks to the miracle of science, an eyeball to point at letters on a screen). Sign language requires both eyes and hands. Even Helen Keller sent and received communication through her body.

Everything we do, say, think, feel, see, smell, taste, hear is experienced from within our own body. How we interpret our experience affects how others receive that information through their own body, just as their interpretation of their own lived experience affects ours.

So, folks, if bodies are so, very important to us, why are Christians so apt to hate on bodies and bodily desires? Why on earth do we think our bodies are something to be ashamed of, or overcome, or sinful?

Why do we shame people for their God-given miraculous embodiment?

I have a bone to pick with whoever started this fad. And I blame Paul.

Oh, Paul, you wonderful, horrible, awe-inspiring, awful, confusing, maddening, loving, misunderstood man! So much of Christianity today is attributed to you. Even writings no one is sure you even wrote get blamed on you or uplifted in your name. Poor guy.

But you say some weird stuff.

 

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. -Romans 8:12-13

Y’all, I’m just not sure how to live any other way but according to the flesh. That’s literally all we have to live by. So here’s Paul telling us the only way to live is to live by the Spirit. We have to put to death the misdeeds of the body if we want to have any hope of living.

Paul, what is this Spirit you speak of, and how do I live by it if I can’t see it?

Here’s the problem. We read this passage and we immediately see a dualism. Flesh v. Spirit. And because of centuries of patriarchal and privileged interpretations, we’ve been made to believe that obviously the spirit is the better of the two. Which means flesh must be bad. So now we live in this crazy dualistic world where Christians truly believe we must be something other than our bodies, and that when our bodies die, we will be released from the cage of flesh and float up like a ball of beautiful light to another world where we will swirl around with other balls of light and everything is happy and nice.

Ew. I don’t wanna go there. BORING.

Let me posit something different. Let’s try, just for a minute, to shift our focus away from the clouds, away from the hope that we can one day get free of our bodies and our “sinful” desires and live pure, body-free lives in heaven. Let me say that I do not think that is in any way what God wants us to hope for, and I do not think that is what Paul means us to think.

Bodies can screw up. Absolutely! Addiction, torture, eating disorders, sexual assault, murder and capitol punishment… these things are all real and they are awful. But we have the good news of Christ, which is that these things can be overcome, that the death of sin, isolation, and despair have been defeated. This is not to say these things don’t happen or don’t matter, but, as Paul says, we have a responsibility to put these things to death. Not just in ourselves, but in our society. Maybe the misdeeds Paul talks about are not our Godly desires, but our social sins that ignore God’s will for our lives in community. We are called to put to death hunger, to put to death poverty, to put to death anything that separates us (not “me,” not “you,” but us) from the love of God. And we can do this because Christ showed us how. And we want to do it because Christ has reconciled us, and continues to reconcile us to God.

Perhaps the Spirit Paul talks about is not our own, individual non-body dependent spirits, but the Spirit of God, that prevenient grace that makes our relationship to God and to one another possible. And to live by that Spirit means we are required to care about what happens to our brothers and sisters, to our world, to all of the cosmos: to God’s beloved Creation.

We don’t live according to what we want because too often we want to ignore that fact that this world is hurting. We want to ignore the fact that we are supposed to do something about it.

It might help if I share something I recently posted on my facebook wall (tweeked a little):

I believe there are many truths to be found in the New Testament, one being that we have been made free to seek and to accept joyful relationship with the Triune God and with each other. This relationship requires the whole body: feeding bodies, clothing bodies, inviting bodies into community regardless of race, gender, class, age, ability, or sexuality. I do not believe bodies or their “fleshly” desires are negative or something to be overcome, but I do believe they can be abused, shamed, and humiliated when treated without respect. I think the spirit/body dualism throughout Christian history has caused much more harm than good and really just makes no sense to me or my theology. While there are certain elements of asceticism I find valuable, I do not think bodies or their desires are something to deny or work through. The miracle of the incarnation tells me that God values our bodies and seeks relationship with us through them. We are not balls of energy for a reason. We are flesh and bone and blood. We crave sex and food and touch and music. I find God in the experience of these things, not in the denial of them. There is a definite time for sacrifice and for an evaluation of how faithful I am living at any given moment. I am ever thankful for God’s grace and the Spirit’s guidance on this journey. As I prepare to wrap up my pentultimate semester of seminary, and look forward to a life of ordained ministry, I only hope I can participate with God in the healing that must happen of all those who have been told their God-given desires are wrong or bad or sinful.

Thanks be to God for our bodies. We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Sex is good. Food is good. Music and dance and movement and singing and hugging and feeding and clothing and nurturing are all GOOD.

So let’s stop telling each other our desires are sinful when what we desire connection with each other. But let us seek God in this connection, and listen to the Spirit when we make mistakes. And let us put to death those things that separate us from each other.

Amen.