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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Thanksgiving Prayer for Standing Rock

God of the oppressed, God of the opposed, God of the losing side,

To the God who chooses the side of the lonely, the God who takes up the hopeless cause,

To the God who reveals yourself in the face of the neighbor,

To you we pray.

When your people say no to profit and yes to people, you are there. (We are your people, not your profit)

When your people say no to oil and yes to clean water, you are there. (We were born in water, not oil)

When your people say no to empire and yes to community, you are there. (We are neighbors, not subjects)

When your people dance and pray for transformation while rubber bullets rain down upon their skin, you are there. When arrests are made and people removed, and more begin to show up, like the multiplying fish and loaves, like the properly invested talents, like the pruned vine, you are there.When the dogs come snarling and biting, when the buffalo come stampeding, when the wind rises and the sun sets, you are there. When it is freezing and your people shiver in the face of the water cannon and stand firm, you are there.

When it seems hopeless you are there.

God, on this Thanksgiving Day, as millions gather around tables and symbolically proclaim unity and mutual respect with those unlike us, we pray you would make those symbolic gestures reality. When we celebrate the false historical narrative of Euro-Native relations around our Thanksgiving tables, remind us of the genocide perpetrated against Native peoples and connect that with what is happening in Standing Rock. Call us to action, to send prayers and aid, to call representatives and join the movement in voice and solidarity.

We ask that you would continue to strengthen those protecting their life’s water. Send your Spirit to dwell on Standing Rock. Transform the hearts of those more interested in profit than in human life and dignity. Only you can.

With gratitude and thanksgiving we pray to you now God, and we celebrate your miracles and blessings. We are thankful that you remain steadfast in your love of your people.

Amen.

Paris, Solidarity, and the Shame Game: A Defense of Mourning and a Commentary on Selective Grief

We, as a nation, have undoubtedly risen to stand in solidarity with Paris. Thousands of profile pictures have been overlain with the French flag. People are posting their personal photos of the Eiffel Tower. News articles and videos are being shared hundreds of times. The terrorist attacks continue to be on every major news outlet, every radio station, every heart and mind.

This has necessarily led to somewhat of a movement on the part of those that are questioning why it is we Americans are so quick to show our care and compassion for France when there are comparable, even at times more horrific, tragedies happening in other countries the world over. These free-thinkers ask of us, “Where are those countries’ flag overlays? Where are the safety check-in features for them? Where are the prayers, the memes, the heartfelt outrage for people of color who have lost entire families due to this same type of violence and terror?”

Good questions.

Not so good follow up.

My frustration is not with the many thoughtful advocates in this world who rightfully seek to open the eyes and hearts of a privileged culture that is undeniably biased towards the tragedies of countries and people “like us.”

My frustration is with the tactics they’ve been using over the past three days.

I can’t count the number of people on my own feed who have recently posted about the massacre in Kenya. 147 killed. No one will deny it was terrible, just as terrible as the events in Paris.

It happened back in April.

No, the passage of time shouldn’t dim our compassion. And no, it didn’t receive the same amount of media attention that Paris has, and that’s wrong. We need to admit that that’s wrong.

But do we really need to repost an eight month old tragedy to prove we are somehow more enlightened, more globally conscious, more capable of proclaiming tragedy on our Facebook feed than the hundreds of people changing their profile pictures to the French flag overlay? No. No, we don’t. I remember that day in April vividly. I remember reading about it, hearing about it, talking about it. I remember praying about it. It’s not like it passed unnoticed, although that’s what some have claimed with misdirected indignation. The fact is, Kenya has had new and different tragedies happen since then, and they don’t need your arrogance coming 8 months after the fact just so you can stroke your ego and feel superior to the masses: “Look, I’m posting about this non-white event, call me aware and unbiased!”

I remember Kenya. I prayed fervently for Kenya, just as I prayed fervently for Nepal not long after, and Syria, and the many other countries where violence and tragedy seem to dwell and linger. As did my church. And my community. These events were talked about and shared. But Facebook didn’t have the profile picture overlays for them. (Actually, I don’t think they introduced the overlays until after SCOTUS passed marriage equality into law, but that may be beside the point.) Regardless, I’m willing to admit the biased emotional response that Paris elicited over and against Beirut and Baghdad implies a larger systemic problem. It’s a problem that we need to face as a country together.

But using shame to make a point is not the way forward. It’s not the way to open hearts or minds. It is a darn quick way to close them.

Yes, please let’s talk about Western privilege! We need to talk about why we are more concerned with predominantly white European countries than countries inhabited by people of color. We need to question why the deaths of Christians elicit more heartache and willingness to stand “in solidarity” than the deaths of non-Christians. We need to talk about internalized racism, and band-wagon mentality, and colonialism. We need to hold France accountable to their own racist and colonialist history and present just as we should hold our own government accountable to their problematic and dehumanizing policies and actions. All of this needs to be talked about on the global stage.

But the anger and condemnation expressed towards those who truly do find themselves effected by the events in Paris on Friday is unnecessary and unhelpful to that cause.

I have seen posts such as, “Don’t pray for Paris,” and “Don’t change your profile picture because France is the fourth worst colonizer in the world.” I’ve read sarcastic statuses about how those who stand in solidarity with Paris remain mute on the pain of the rest of the world, and fail to show solidarity to anyone else. “Look at all these idiot sympathizers,” some of these writings seem to say. “How misguided can you get?” Like a flag overlay somehow makes you incapable of feeling any other pain.

This is blatantly untrue.

The friends and family I know and love with red, white, and blue profile pictures are incredibly thoughtful, generous human beings who are determined to educate themselves on world matters. I understand there is a lot that could be said with the symbol of the French flag, just as there is a lot that can be said of our own. Symbols are hugely loaded with whatever is projected onto them. France has done some pretty terrible things, as have we, and our flags carry that history. Does that mean we simply get rid of them? What about the countless countries that are being terrorized, not just by jihadists and extremists, but by our own governments? Those flags have similar histories of violence on their own people. Do we toss them out as well? (I’m falling into a dangerous argument here, I can feel it. Because I am definitely anti-confederate flag. I need to think on this more deeply. Please comment if you can help me out of this web.)

I’ve digressed. The problem is not the individual, but the culture and the availability and visibility of media.

The message from the attacking side has somehow become less about culture change, and more about individual shaming. If you change your profile picture to represent France, it must be because you have no care or compassion or sympathy for the rest of the world, or you are pro-colonization and pro-oppression. If you openly talk about mourning for Paris, there’s must be no room in your heart for the rest of the world, and therefore you are a racist and an elitist. I don’t believe this is the intended message (maybe it is), but it’s certainly felt internally when I read these scathing critiques of the sharing choices of the social media masses. It’s the Shame Game.

Wanna know how to open the conversation well, without the implied shame and guilt? Here’s how:

“We can be in solidarity, but we should also be critical of our blind spots and motivations for such solidarity. Just because this particular type of violence now seems “real” or “close to home” doesn’t mean it isn’t happening to people and communities all over. The places from which thousands of refugees are fleeing have been seeing bombings and shoot-outs for weeks, months, and years. Where is our compassion for them? The legacies of racism and colonialism aren’t absent from our “solidarity” no matter how hard we try. Let’s not fall asleep on that fact.” – (A really smart and kind friend of mine)

The appropriate reaction is, yes, let’s mourn Paris. And then let’s also state that we need to evaluate our reactions to those who suffer, and what the criteria is for our solidarity. And then we need to actually work towards making that better, and not just shout each other down.

Don’t make Paris a bullhorn for your own agenda. Don’t condemn those who hurt. Do open up the conversation to include larger structures of violence and oppression. Do allow yourself to feel the pain of the world. Don’t make it into a competition to see who can post about the most grief in the shortest amount of time. That’s not solidarity either.

The reality is that I do need to work harder to be in solidarity with all those who suffer, not just on social media, but real, feet-on-the-ground solidarity. Not just with a flag overlay, but with companionship and accompaniment. Not just for France but for my own neighbors in Nashville who are being squeezed out by gentrification and homelessness, for refugees who are fleeing their homes, for the sick, and imprisoned, and for all those my faith teaches me I’m supposed to know and love. And I thank all those who have made that point clear to me with love and mercy. Thank you.

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One final unrelated point, and this is more to start a discussion than a defense. For me personally, Paris is more than just some distant white European country. It has a piece of my heart. I’ve always loved Paris, since I was tiny. I had the privilege to visit in 2008, when I spent the summer in France (and yes, I see and feel the innate privilege that statement carries).

But we sometimes forget the importance of place and geography in our identity narratives. I was changed by that country in ways I can’t explain. I grew up there in the sense it was the first time I truly felt like a capable adult.

My guess is that many Americans have similar feelings and experiences of that beloved city, especially those privileged enough to have traveled and lived there. On the other hand, it is an unfortunate but influencing truth that many of us have not had (or perhaps not taken is better phrasing) the opportunity to travel to non-western countries like Syria, Iraq, Kenya, and others where violence and death seem to play a daily role. So the position of place in our collective consciousness is perhaps more powerfully felt when the tragedy occurs on soil we’ve placed our feet upon, not because it is “close to home,” but because it is in a sense a literal part of our home.

And doesn’t that make sense? Is it not okay for me to feel a deep sense of loss over Paris that I might not be capable of feeling in the same way over a place I’ve never been? Don’t misread me, please. I’m not saying the deaths or the depths of the tragedy is any different, but that the memory and felt reality of the place is forever altered for me. Like when a tornado happens in Texas, I’m necessarily more engaged in thew news of it than I would be if a tornado were to happen in Kansas. The destruction might be the same, but Texas is my home, and I owe my personhood to it. Not that I can’t be touched by loss in Kansas, but it’s not the same. Does anyone get this or understand it at all? Can you help me nuance it?

Many thanks to Michael Kozoile, who wrote this article and said,

“Grief is not a competition to be the most even-handed, the most objective, the least corrupted. Grieving is personal, subjective, uncontrollable. If you feel the need to pray or cry for the people of Paris – because you’ve walked their streets, befriended their people, lived their lifestyle – then you should do so, freely and without the judgment of others.”

He has a lot more to say about challenging yourself to go deeper, but he says it better than I could, so please read it.

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.

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.