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.

 

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.

Pulse

Hot tears flowing freely through well worn trails of mascara.
I could no more command an end to this pouring
than I could bring back the dead.

Is this the worst?

Numbness sought flees to the wings
so I’m standing here naked in the spotlight again
but no one’s watching.

Is this the worst?

White hot ice surges through me
tearing at the flesh, ripping the heart.
rat a tat tat again and again and again and again and a

Is this the worst?

gain and again and again and a

Every burning shot buried in bone, lodged for life,
each accompanying me to death

Is this the worst?

Faces smiling from the computer screen
lovers and dancers and sons and daughters
dead dead dead dead dead times 10.

Weeping. Mourning. Grieving. Praying.
Acts doing nothing so much as highlighting my powerlessness
My complicitness
My failure.

I’M SORRY. To the mothers and the fathers and the lovers
and the friends, I’m sorry. To the empty rooms and lonely pets,
to the words left unsaid and the bucket lists unfilled, I’m sorry.

To the history books I’m sorry.

Is this the worst?

Don’t try to cover my nakedness with your holy oil
I’ve no place for hollow hope
Look at the pain, mine and yours
Do not avert your eyes.

LISTEN! Too long you’ve heard the pulse of your own righteousness
beating in your ears.
Today you hear a different beat
the thrum of blood pooling on the dance floor,
the depreciating hum of life ebbing into darkness.

Is this the worst?

Hear the cries of the mothers!
Hear the cries of the lovers!
Hear the cries of the prophets!
Hear the cries of the dead!

What have we done? Their blood cries out to us from the ground.

And I am ashamed.

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.

Morning Prayer

God of all things, of goodness, mercy, and abundance,

God of the sunshine, of the fog, of early morning bird chirps and dog yips and coffee,

God of the hospitals, of the sick, the lonely, and the desperate,

God of the prisons, of the shamed, of the cagers and the caged,

God of miracles, God of healing, God of hope,

God of life,

We praise you. We thank you for the gift of embodied living on this precious earth. We petition you to enable all bodies everywhere freedom of motion, freedom to touch the grass with bare feet, freedom to feed themselves from the earth, and not from a chill and serve packing plant making profits from bodies without options for survival.

Remind us to love our bodies, to enjoy the pleasures of our senses, to be thankful for full bellies and warm limbs and protection from the rain.

God, grant us peace and joy today, while also fueling the fire that leads us to seek justice where there is none.

Amen.

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And the Journey Continues to Begin

I’m having one of those weeks.

It’s the kind of week where nothing terrible is happening, no one has died recently, my car is running, my dog is healthy, and I should be thankful for all that I have and my beautiful life.

And I guess on some deeply interior level I am grateful. I recognize that I am glad to be who I am, living where I am, doing what I am. But I just can’t seem to feel the gratitude this week.

Because, yes, most things are good. But there are bad things too. Family things, mostly. Some new transitions. I’ll be moving out of my house in 9 days, and I have to live the gypsy life for a few weeks until our new place is ready. But I’m not really worried about that. I do worry about my dad, my mom, my siblings. I worry about becoming an adult. I worry about dying from a gas leak or carbon monoxide poisoning. (Have I mentioned to you I am a worrier? I am. Big Time.) And I also feel sad because I’m missing some pretty important people in my life whom I’d rather be here with me. It’s been one year since Aunt E passed. And I miss my Nana. I want her to rub my back and tell me stories and have me help her bake a cake. But she can’t and it makes me sad.

I guess I just have what the French call ennui. I’m prone to bouts of depression, but this time it feels existential in nature. Like, what is the point of anything right now?

It’s times like these I sometimes forget about God. Of course I’m studying about and talking about and reading about God everyday in seminary, and I think about God on Sunday morning, and in my weekly bible study, and sometimes in my covenant group. But when you’re in the zip-lock bag of depression, you forget that God is in there with you. And outside of it and all around it. You forget that God is more than an intellectual concept to be talked about and debated about. You forget that there is something greater than yourself that shouldn’t understand anything you’re going through because she’s off being god-like in the great cosmos, but she does understand exactly what you’re going through because she loves you so much she became human and went through humiliation and abandonment just to know the deepest levels of human suffering and never leave you alone again EVER.

That is pretty amazing love.

Now, I am not encouraging the “snap out of it” method of dealing with despair. And those of you who don’t understand it or have never been through it may not understand why certain people have trouble letting themselves out of the zip-lock. And I’m no expert by any means. I heard an on-air interview with the singer song-writer Neko Case a few days ago. And she said something like, “There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this way. It just sucks. Okay? It sucks. But when you stop analyzing it to death, you can sometimes start to move on.”

So it sucks that I’m having one of these weeks. It sucks that I miss the recent members of my great cloud of witnesses so much it hurts. But it’s also kind of beautiful, right? Because they’re not gone. They’re here with me. And this isn’t the end, I will see them again (thank you, Miss Underwood). And even though I will never be the type of person who doesn’t worry about things, I can accept that about myself, just like I’ve accepted it before. One thing I continually learn as I grow is that I sometimes continually learn the same lesson. Like, “Depend on God.” Or, “Accept yourself.” Or, “It gets better.” These lessons just don’t seem to sink in. But that’s okay, because re-learning them is sort of cathartic in a way. Like, “Oh yeah, I remember this feeling!”

I promise one day soon I will get back to my “25” list. I’ve made progress in some areas, not so much in others. But I’m trying. And therefore my journey continues.

New month, new writing stuff!

Folks, we are officially one twelfth of the way through the year 2013.

25 update #1: I took a picture of an awesome place yesterday, so I didn’t miss my January deadline. Hooray!

It’s only a camera phone photo, so it’s nothing fancy. But I think it’s a great place to start documenting the many awe-inspiring places of my life.

ImageThis is the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

It’s a mouthful of a title. But a big place that does such big things deserves a big name.

I am currently serving as a chaplain intern at the Children’s hospital, and let me tell you, it has not always been sparkly and vibrant. In fact, it can be downright ugly and heart stopping. But Good God Almighty, it is a beautiful place.

It’s beautiful in the conventional sense in that someone (or more likely a very large committee of someones) put a great deal of time and effort into designing the building itself. The halls are swathed in “rivers of healing and ribbons of peace,” or some similar saying. It basically means that there are a lot of swirly, flowy, ribbony type elements that make you feel more like you are in a children’s art museum than a hospital. Plus actual patient art can be found on nearly every wall of every floor. There are bright colors, photos, artwork, child-friendly statues, blown glass light fixtures, butterflies, and animals everywhere you look. It is a truly stimulating and sensual experience to walk those halls every day, no matter how tough things may get physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

But it’s also beautiful in the quality of people that occupy the space. The medical staff, social workers, child life specialists, chaplains, receptionists, volunteers, and everyone else who gives their time and energy into making sick kids feel better each deserve a Nobel prize. Seriously. I sometimes look around at these people and think, “This is what the Kingdom of God looks like.”

But I think what has been the most amazing, most inspiring, most affirming thing in my personal experience working in this hospital is my work with the patients and families. I have been present for everything from broken bones to chemo, trauma, and life-support removal. These are real people in real pain, and it has taken me a while to realize that they really know God. I think I had expectations when I first started that I would be serving as more of a teacher, reading scripture and calming fears and anxiety with prayer. I am a master of divinity student, after all. I have deconstructed and reconstructed my theology every which way. I thought I was ready to provide pastoral care. (If you are wondering, you are never ready until you actually do it.)  I vainly thought I could help bring God to these families. I was so so wrong.

What a surprise, and yet how perfectly consistent with everything I believe, to find that God is always already there, and has been there long before I walk into a room. I don’t “bring” God anywhere. I walk in, I listen, and what unfolds before me is a powerful and miraculous story of pain and suffering, which is always infused with great amounts of faith and hope. It is a testament to the human spirit and God’s strong desire for relationship with us that faith can still be found in these places of deepest hurt. I am constantly amazed at the resurrection and new life I see all around me, every single day.

The Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital is a living and breathing miracle here on earth. Even when patients die (and they do die because we live in a world which is continually being redeemed, and we wait for the Kingdom of Heaven while we actively seek to build it), the glory of God and the redemptive work of Christ is still present. This is not to say we don’t hurt and cry and scream our hearts out to God. It’s just to say God can take it. And thank God for that.

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25 update #2: I think I can say that I successfully made a new friend in January. If we want to get technical, she’s been an acquaintance since last semester, and I didn’t really ask her to be my friend until today, Feb. 1st, at the end of our discussion class. It went like this:

Me: Hey, um, S?
S: Yeah?
Me: We should get coffee sometime. Or grab lunch or something.
S: Yeah, we should!
Me: Ok, Fridays usually work for me, but I have to finish a paper.
S: Well let’s do next Friday. Fridays are usually the best for me too!
Me: Ok!

I realize now that this would have been a good place to stop the conversation, smile politely, and say something like, “Have a good weekend!” Instead…

Me: Hey, do you mind if I put you in my blog? (Immediately horrified I even asked her this. What kind of weirdo am I? Ok, I can fix this.) I mean, I just need a new friend. Can you be my friend this month? (Not helping myself out at all. I am sooooo lame.)
S: (smiling), Haha, yeah, that’s fine, I’ll be famous! Let me know when you post it!
Me: (in my head: I KNEW I liked you for a reason! You don’t care that I’m weird!)

Thank you Lord, for S.

Anyway, even though it’s February, I’m going to count S as my January friend. Because I can.

The end.