Church Life, Music, Reflectionary

Freedom’s Holy Light

Until a couple of years ago, I would have described myself as a moderate about singing patriotic hymns in church. I wouldn’t design a whole service around patriotic themes; usually I allowed time for a patriotic sing-along before the start of the worship service proper. My philosophy was to keep what was usually a communion service on the first Sunday in July separate from nationalistic themes. I would tell myself, there is no other place where people sing together anymore. And some – even most – of those songs include themes that call us to be better.

We get into trouble when we consider them descriptive rather than aspirational.

This past Sunday I worshipped at kathrynzj’s church; her attitude about those songs is similar, but for reasons having to do with the installation of a new sound system and the resulting limited rehearsal time for her musician, two patriotic hymns were part of the service.

I can remember listening rhapsodically to a broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion” from Wolf Trap in which Garrison Keillor had the audience singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” a capella; I remember wishing I could have been there to feel the sound rise around me.

This past Sunday, though, I was crying by the time we got to verse 4.

Our fathers’ God to, Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King!

I’m past grieving now for the idealized America my parents let me believe in, because they hope it would be true, protecting me from the racism they wished were solved, promoting values of equality and fairness and kindness to others, particularly those less fortunate than we were.

I'm crying now because when God's holy light shines bright we see every sin, collective and individual, that plagues us.

I’m crying now because when freedom’s holy light shines bright we see every sin that plagues us. Worse, we see how many people in this country positively rejoice in those sins of violence and cruelty when they serve a White Supremacist agenda. Power now seems to belong to the cruelest, the unkindest, the most selfish among us, people who understand freedom as whatever profits the individual.

Today I am looking for and finding signs of hope, not the kind of candy-coated, bunting-inspired hope of past 4ths of July, but the gritty determination of activists, pastors, moms, and many other ordinary people determined to help others, to embody the values I cherish, values I derive from my faith, values I believe will bring freedom and liberation: inclusion, cooperation, and mercy.

I pray for the day when our land will be bright with freedom’s holy light, a freedom that will no longer be merely aspirational, a freedom that makes manifest God’s commonwealth of love.

Faith, Reflectionary, The Inner Landscape

Constant

IMG_1533This morning in South Central Pennsylvania, the sun is shining. The Japanese maple tree outside my window is in full leaf. The steeple of the Presbyterian church rises behind it. Although the tree changes with the seasons, this has been my outside view for several years now as I sit at my desk, consistent and reliable. My star word for this year is Constant, and it reminds me how few things are. In a season of political and ethical turmoil, not much seems reliable.

But this view, and the things I see when I walk out my door or drive down my street remain – essentially – the same, despite potholes or snowfall. A hydrangea grows beside the church’s youth center, which sits next door to the Manse, with shades of blue like crayons, they are so intense. I see the church, these houses, the fence around the Associate Pastor’s backyard. (Yes, we live on what amounts to a compound.)

There’s something reassuring, constant, about the sameness of these things, this place. Similarly the landscape of Portland, Maine, offered a framework for my life for so many years, the curve of Baxter Boulevard around Back Cove, the uneven brick sidewalks where I walked my dogs, the esplanade of trees shading Sheffield Street. I did some of my hardest personal work talking on the phone while standing beneath those trees, considering what would come next while driving that route, trying to be ruthlessly honest with myself while wrangling a big dog.

Do you remember the concept of having a Constant that was part of the TV Show Lost? In that case the idea was that a person could be your constant; there was a romantic implication there about Desmond and Penny, although there was a time-travely bit, too. (#fantasy) In mathematics it means an unvarying value and in other disciplines the idea is the same, is constant. It’s something that doesn’t change.

I suppose that means a person or a place or a thing cannot be a constant, cannot be constant.

IMG_1536I’ve been pasting a little star with the word handwritten on it in my bullet journal every week, trying to keep the word in front of me instead of forgetting it as I have some years. I’ve studied lists of words in the thesaurus that suggest the nuances of the word: fixed, ceaseless, trustworthy.

What or who has unvarying value?

In this season of turmoil, I’m asking questions while walking a different dog under different trees. I’ve fallen out of the habit of my spiritual practice, which for many months was reading the Psalms and writing prayer in their margins. Instead I wake each morning to see what new terrible thing has happened in this inconstant world. The other day, my friend Mary Beth posted on the question, “How can you pray at a time like this?” She pointed me back to the Psalms, and I thought of a phrase from Psalm 146. It’s helping me today.  I’m not saying it’s enough to pray, but maybe if I can pray again, I can do the work that needs to be done, with God as my constant.

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as long as I live;
    I will sing praises to my God all my life long.

Do not put your trust in princes,
    in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
    on that very day their plans perish.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed;
    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
    the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers;
    he upholds the orphan and the widow,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

10 The Lord will reign forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord!

Books

Book Review: God, Improv, and the Art of Living

Let me start by saying that Improv terrifies me. Even as an audience member, I clench, more focused on what might go wrong than on what is actually unfolding. When compelled to improv in acting classes, both as a student and later as an adult, I felt like someone who just could not speak the language.

I do, however, approach every book I open with the belief it may have something important to say to me, whether an idea that sparks new understandings or a disagreement in perspective that challenges me. I’m open to possibility. My friend, author MaryAnn McKibben Dana, would have to tell you for sure, but after reading her excellent new book God, Improv, and the Art of Living (Eerdmans, 2018), I think I may just be taking a “Yes, And” approach to reading, if not to improv itself.

Many of the principles developed in the book resonated for this reader.

First, about God:

Rather than being remote and impersonal, God’s nature is to collaborate – to improvise – with God’s people. And when that improvisation occurs, it moves in the direction of inclusion and mercy and grace. (p. 49)

On the value of listening and how improv can deepen it:

Getting the gist is now our default practice, to the exclusion of deep understanding and shared wisdom…

True listening trusts there is enough time to consider, absorb, and be changed. Onstage, a good improviser trusts that a little bit of awkward silence isn’t nearly as bad as making a hasty move that doesn’t honor what their partner has offered. (p. 64)

On the role of the self-critical internal Voice that limits our risk-taking:

The Voice, also called the censor, is guided by two over-arching sentiments: “You’re not good enough” and “Who do you think you are?” These sentiments stop us mid-risk and keep us safe on the beaten path rather than in the improvisational mystery, which is scarier, but ultimately more interesting and satisfying. (p. 134)

And on getting to work:

Good ideas don’t have much shelf life. It’s much better to use them as quickly as possible, before they turn to ashes. (p. 142)

These and many other passages are underlined in my copy of the book, which is useful for looking at one’s life, but also a great tool for churches that might hesitate to take a risk in a changing world. To encourage exploring the principles of improv, the book includes a set of exercises for individuals and groups. Stories from scripture and contemporary life illustrate the principles. MaryAnn is a gifted aggregator, bringing together her experiences in class and on stage with the wisdom of teachers and scholars in a way that elevates her thesis. Being open to say “Yes, and” widens our sense of what is possible, makes our lives richer, and is faithful to the God who invites us to collaborate. Will we take the risk? I hope so.


I received an Advance Reader Copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. I cannot guarantee that the page numbers indicated above are the same in the final version.

Books

Horses Speak of God, by Laurie Brock – a review

“Sit deeply.”

After being thrown by her horse, Laurie Brock received that counsel from her riding instructor, a story she tells in Horses Speak of God: How Horses Can Teach Us to Listen and Be Transformed (Paraclete Press, 2018).

“Sit deeply and ride.”

I’m not a horse person. They are beautiful; that’s a fact. I rode horses on a family friend’s farm as a child and loved the experience, but I later had a scare at a riding lesson and never rode again. All this is to say I picked up Laurie’s book not even knowing how limited my knowledge of riding is. I appreciated the way she described the specifics of gaits and gear, as well as the temperaments of horses broadly and the horses she rides in particular.

Brock is an Episcopal priest and writes about her development as both a minister and a rider, here in a chapter on Fear, in which she describes the aftermath of being thrown by her horse, Nina. Just as she gets back on the horse, Brock encourages us to persist in faith.

When God meets us in our relationship and says, “Fear not,” God isn’t telling us to act as if we aren’t scared. Instead, God reminds us that fear will not be the only emotion or the conclusive one. When we are scared and fearful, we join a long line of faithful disciples who responded initially with fear, but stayed around. (p. 39)

In a chapter on vocation, Brock describes Nina’s role as a great teaching horse for riders who are new, and the instructor who recognized “she is an amazing lesson horse.”

Our vocations, our calls from God, work almost the same way. We experiment, perhaps discovering both what we are suited for and even what we are not called to do. We will need insight from others. Usually others can see our vocation before we can. Others can also see what might not be our vocation before we admit that we might not be suited for this particular ministry of God. (p. 45)

Brock’s book centers the reader in the necessity of balance and breath, routine and repetition, in our physical existence and our spiritual lives as well. Her relationships with Nina and the other horses she rides, grooms, and loves speak to our relationship with both the embodied and the transcendent. In the world of riding, some actions feel intuitive, while others require us to do what seems strange. We cannot grow without persistent practice, whether as riders or people of faith. It is not enough to approach our incarnate God with our intellect. Will we show up to meet God the way Brock settles on her horse, ready to move together, to be as one? 

I recommend this wonderful book to both horse-lovers and far off-admirers like me. Horses speak of God, and so does Laurie Brock.


I received an advance manuscript of Laurie’s book and wrote an endorsement, as well as this review.

Church Life, Ministry, Reflectionary

Asked and Answered

IMG_1191
My favorite preacher

The question has been asked and answered so many times. At least on this occasion I knew the asker was friendly, offering an opportunity to make the case to an audience containing listeners of mixed attitudes. We had discussed a recent complaint on the matter before the recording began. Even so, I was a little surprised when I heard the question.

“What would you say to people who don’t think women should be clergy?”

He asked, so I answered, bearing in mind our earlier conversation.

“I would point them,” I said, “to the gospel stories of the Resurrection, and to the first evangelists, who were women. I would suggest they read Paul’s epistles carefully and take note of how many leaders in the early church were women.”

IMG_9023
Some other preachers I appreciate

My interviewer moved on to the next question, but I know that out in the ether, people will repeat the one already asked and answered. A vocal portion of humankind – which I like to think are in the minority despite the volume of their voices and the attention paid to them – continue to value women only in relation and submission to men.

They make these claims on religious grounds, forgetting or ignoring passages of scripture inconvenient to their thesis. At the church my wife serves, the staff and Session have undertaken a read-along, Four Gospels in Four Months, and invited the congregation to join them. Today’s chapter was Matthew 15, in which Jesus meets a woman who teaches him when she says, “…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ tables.” She asks, and he answers, and the mission of Christ expands to become a mission to the world.

Holy God, give us patience to answer questions asked again and again, and keep us open to answers that will change us. Amen.


This post was written for the RevGalBlogPals Weekly e-Reader. You can hear the interview mentioned above on Day1 in June.

Common English Bible, Denial is My Spiritual Practice, Psalms, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Rheumatoid Disease

Like a bird on a roof

My health has been, let’s say, indifferent over the past couple of months. I’ve had to change some plans, with disappointment, and there may be more of that to come. My rheumatologist has prescribed a new medication and made some adjustments to another; it will take some time to see if this artful combination works.

I always try to be hopeful about these things

I can’t decide how to punctuate that sentence.

“, but …”

“; that isn’t always easy …”

I don’t know. It’s been almost ten years since I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. One of the chapters of my book is about how I have used denial to cope. Now, not only am I trying hard to be more realistic, this time I have felt poorly enough that I can’t fake it.

I can’t.

I’m like some wild owl–
like some screech owl in the desert.
I like awake all night.
I’m all alone like a bird on a roof.
(Psalm 102:6-7, CEB)

I’m not alone, of course. I have a genuinely and generously supportive wife. The lone, wild bird is a creature of my feelings. I reject the idea of being ill and dependent. I like to do *for* others. I’m an Enneagram 2; it’s a feature of my personality, and it’s been important for me to learn to give without wanting something in return, and to learn when something is mine to do, or not. I understand all that.

But must I learn to receive even when I cannot give?

I’ll be honest. I hate that.

Thus the bird on the roof.

Many psalms lay out a complaint, whether a diatribe against oppressors or a lament direct to God. Usually they turn to praise, to some sense of reconciliation with the Lord, some relief of the pain. 102 comes around for one more exclamation in verse 23.

God broke my strength in midstride,
cutting my days short.

My days are cut short because I cannot do all the things I want to do, at home, at work, or at play. And while that is discouraging in the near view, the hardest thing in this illness is how inevitably I get sicker when I am trying to get better.

I don’t believe God visited it on me

That’s a hard one to punctuate, too.

I don’t believe God visited it on me, but I wish I could get a break, some improvement in my health, even a time of staying the same. It seems I need to prepare for more of the inevitable; I will find a way to do it.

For now, though, I am trying to feel my feelings. For now, in prayer at least, I’m all alone like a bird on a roof.

 

John 20:29-31, Reflectionary

Fantasy League Jesus

It’s no secret that we love baseball at my house. We celebrated Opening Day in Holy Week and actually managed to watch our favorite team, the Washington Nationals, play on TV. My wife and our 13-year-old are playing in a fantasy baseball league, which is to say they have drafted players and named teams, and the rest happens online, where the fantasy teams win or lose based on the daily performance of actual players. Their success is calculated by some math that is beyond my powers, or at least outside my interests.

The strangest thing about it is hearing my oughta-be-Nats fans root for players not on our team, for the sake of their other teams. They are inhabiting a paradigm that is unfamiliar to me. What is it they are wishing for? I understand it intellectually, but not emotionally.

Fantasy league JesusI have to think that in the days after the Resurrection, the disciples felt a similar disconnect. Ten of them – and some of the women, uncounted – saw the risen Christ. And then a week went by. They must have begun to wonder whether they were reliable witnesses to their own experiences. In their fantasy Jesus leagues, were they still looking for his return, maybe followed by some “gotcha” confrontation with the authorities, some earthly kingdom victory? Did they hear his words about peace and calm down? Or did they grieve again, realizing that the risen Lord could not remain with them forever? I picture them questioning each other, retelling the stories of Mary in the garden and Jesus in the Upper Room, asking, “Do you remember exactly what he said next?”

Thomas lived through that time in a different kind of tension. I picture him glowering, frustrated, understanding in his head that they must have seen something, but in his heart feeling hurt to be the only one left out, the only one who saw no sign. I sympathize with him.

This week, preachers will ask their own questions of the familiar story. And let’s be honest, this is not most preachers’ favorite Sunday; we’ve been there before, and we’re in a post-Easter lull. Maybe this year, we can take a page out of fantasy baseball and move the players around. Maybe we can triangulate against the text with Thomas instead of critiquing him. Maybe we can put ourselves and our listeners in Thomas’s shoes.

I’m pretty sure that’s why he’s there.


Find this week’s texts here.

I wrote this originally for the RevGals Weekly e-Reader.