Prayer of the week: A lament

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manchester bombing--blog post

O God, where are you?

You have disappeared from our world,
You have turned your back on us
when we desperately need you.

We need you to act and
move in this world–
Bombs are exploding, bullets are flying,
People are dying–
children are dying
While the powers keep talking and talking and talking and not listening
and listening.

O, God, where are you?

You have abandoned us,
You have left us when we desperately need you.

We need you to give us words and voices
to talk to the powers–
We need you to break through their words and worlds
and cause them to pause, to listen.
We need you to halt the death and destruction
that is occurring all over the globe.

O God, your Word promises us that you will never leave us
not forsake us.
Please show yourself to us and to the world.
Please pour out your goodness, your love,
your mercy to all of us.

O God, please act and move in this world, today
and everyday.   AMEN

(I wrote this several years ago and I am praying it again this week.)

Book review: Once You Go In

Dangerous Readers-A

Once You Go In: A Memoir of Radical Faith

By Carly Gelsinger

(She Writes Press, 2018)

 

When God created Adam God declared it was not good for man to be alone, so Eve was created to ease Adam’s loneliness. The Old Testament is the story of individuals creating community with God and with one another. It is natural for us to long to belong to others whether this is within families, neighborhoods, sports team fandom, or within a faith tradition. We want to belong.

In her memoir, Once You Go In, Carly Gelsinger describes her adolescent longing to be part of a group, especially a particular church group in her small Northern California town, the Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church. She grew up in a loving family of four living in the country, singing Beatles songs and Broadway tunes together. “We sang ‘All You Need is Love’ as the sun set behind the wall of pine trees next to us ….My heart bubbled over with the sense that love filled our longs, and that love was bigger than the canyon surrounding us.” And because of this love Gelsinger sensed a Love beyond and greater than the love experienced in her family. “…I had an inexplicable draw to be near to God from a young age.”

One day, while bicycling around town she spots a vinyl banner hanging in front of the Assemblies of God Church with the announcement: “Voice in the Desert Youth, 7 p.m. Thursdays.”

Youth. The word makes me picture slumber parties and pepperoni pizza and group photos and matching T-shirts. The Baptist church I’ve been going to off and on for years doesn’t have Youth. They have babies and old people, and Vacation Bible School, which is for little kids. I wonder what it would be like to have a group, a place to belong.

And Gelsinger joins the youth group. Her well-written memoir tells us of her efforts to belong to this church and what it cost her in terms of her relationships with her family, herself, and with God.

Throughout Gelsinger’s story she tries to understand what the group norms are, to tease apart the religious language, and to guess at the expectations of the church. Despite her efforts she apparently falls short of understanding the religious culture of this small Pentecostal church. Gelsinger attempts to live the kind of godly life the church teaches.  What she doesn’t realize until she was a young adult was no matter how hard she tries to fit in, to fully belong to this congregation, she will always fall short because the god this church worships is mean-spirited, angry, and frequently punishes those who disappoint him. When she disappoints her pastor, his wife, and the youth leaders, she is, in effect, disappointing God and lives in fear of being excluded from the church.

Gelsinger tells several stories of how the church leaders would distinguish church members as separate from non-church members by underscoring their belief that “we are special, we are the faithful ones that God will use to save the world.” The leaders emphasize that “we believe and practice our faith the correct way because we are on fire for the Lord while other people are lukewarm in their faith.” The people were continually exhorted to convert the lukewarm believers and non-believers but “if you can’t convert them then you must separate yourself from those people because they will be an evil influence on you.” Of course, the leaders use the language of “encouraging one another, exhorting for good, and offering godly discipline” to control the group rather than focusing on God’s mercy and love.

Gelsinger remains a part of the church throughout her adolescence in which she genuinely loves God and wants to be God’s faithful servant. She speaks in tongues, prays for miracles, witnesses to her peers, while experiencing life as an American teenager. The church’s emphasis on salvation on their terms puts a strain on Gelsinger’s relationship with her parents, enduring pressure from church leaders to “save” her father who grew up Catholic. She is encouraged by the youth pastor and his wife to refrain from the family activity of listening and singing to the Beatles and other forms of secular music. The same youth pastor and wife routinely suggests that Gelsinger’s family carries generational sin which prevents Gelsinger from becoming a great woman of God. Ultimately, after a confrontation by the youth pastor and wife for having a “Spirit of Rebellion” Gelsinger’s mother tells her, “You are brainwashed.” They do not speak for a few weeks afterward.

The confrontation propels Gelsinger into understanding that she needs to get away from Pine Canyon Assemblies of God Church and even Pine Canyon itself. She transfers from the local community college to a small evangelical college thirty miles away. The physical distance provides room for Gelsinger to begin healing from the psychological, emotional, and spiritual wounds inflicted by the small congregation. She begins to find new friends, groups, and her future husband who do not wish to control her or her relationship with God.

Gelsinger marries, moves across the country for graduate school, finds new friends who love her and love God. She starts the painful process of deconstructing her youthful faith while cautiously reconstructing a faith in a loving and merciful God. Eventually, she and her husband visit a number of churches or not attend at all until they wander into an Episcopalian church on a Sunday morning, which was the denomination of her now-deceased loving and merciful grandmother. Gelsinger concludes the book with this description of her faith:

My fire for God changed me, and while I never want to go back, I can see hope is leading the way to something good. It has led me to the slow growth of faith, of small shoots of life pushing up from dead stumps, of expansive views of hope I may have never seen otherwise…I will keep questioning and thanking and running and falling and searching and rebuilding, because this is the process of being alive.

 In her acknowledgments, Gelsinger states: “I am grateful for every person in this story who led me to where I am today …. There are no villains or heroes in this story—just muddling through.” This is a loving and merciful spirit toward her life and the people of her youth. While Gelsinger doesn’t explicitly state it, she now belongs to her family, to God, and to herself.

(This review first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books, November 1, 2018)

What Sustains Me

Youngest niece with her kitten

(My youngest niece with her companion). Photo by Jill Warden

 

7) At the four-way stop on the road from our house to our work there is a parade of roosters, chickens, and ducks moving from corner to corner. Often a rooster is leading the flock like a drum major. I laugh out loud every time I see them.

6) I am delighted during a chat with my 9-year-old niece as she tells me of her class report “Facts about Cats.” I’m not a cat person but I ask follow-up questions which she answers with authority and passion.

5) At The Hermitage, the contemplative retreat center where I work, we begin meals for our guests with ”Food is God’s love made edible.” Our meals are fresh and nutritious from ingredients grown at local farms. Who can compare the taste of freshly harvested beets to beets from a can on the grocery shelf?

4) At the beginning of meeting with retreat guests seeking spiritual direction, I light the oil lamp to remind us that God is with us and we do not have to be afraid. I listen with a prayerful, soulful heart as they entrust their stories to me. Sometimes the vibrational energy is strong and it unnerves me when I remember the stories of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross levitating in their conversations. I am not levitating and I don’t have to be afraid.

3) When my husband gazes at me with love and I am reminded of Julian of Norwich: “I look at God and God looks back at me.” I receive those gazes as the loving face of God.

2) Hermitage morning prayers end affirming each other with: “[Name], you are the bearer of God’s infinite life.” Some days I believe I can be a God-bearer and other days, not a chance.

1) What sustains? God. God is in all, through all, is all.

 

Life Transitions

 return slowly

(The Hermitage sign along the driveway for departing guests).

 

Greetings from Three Rivers, Michigan! My husband and I moved here almost a month ago—sold our home, sorted, packed, donated (and donated, and donated), and moved to join the residential community of The Hermitage, a contemplative retreat center.

At one point we seriously considered joining the residential community but it never seemed the right time. During a conversation with the Hermitage board someone asked Kevin is he was finished his library career and he realized there was more he wanted to explore. Within the past two years he sensed an inner restlessness and began to discern that he was ready to move on from library work. After pondering and praying we approached The Hermitage about joining the residential community. And here we are.

We are settling into our new home, new work, new schedule, new life. We are learning what it is to pray together as a community six days a week which includes weekly celebrating the Eucharist with one another. We are learning to work together which involves explaining and absorbing details such as which towels and sheets go into which guest room. Working together involves discussing and challenging and yielding and releasing of “my way.”

As Benedict stated in his rules for monastic life: Ora et labora. The literal translation is “Prayer and work.” It can also be translated as “Our work is our prayer; our prayer is our work.”

I discovered this prayer from the Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals which describes my inner restlessness and reflection these past several months:

Prayer for Major Life Transition

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity.

Lord, teach me to listen to my heart, teach me to welcome change, instead of fearing it.

Lord, I give you these stirrings inside of me. I give you my discontent, I give you my restlessness. I give you my doubt. I give you my despair. I give you all the longing I hold inside. Help me to listen to these signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.

 

Befriending My Depression

befriending depression (2)

 

As I meet with a new doctor she reviews my list of prescriptions.

“Do you still need this one?” she asks while pointing at my anti-depressant medication.

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell her my history with depression: “I had my first depression when I was 13 years old, the next one at age 19, another one in my mid-20s, then again when I was 40,” I said. “That last one was deeper and longer than any of the others and I started the medication.”
“Okay,” she said while nodding. “Sounds like you’re a lifer for meds.”

“Yep, probably.”

***

I’ve had this conversation with a variety of physicians, including a dermatologist who said, “You look fine to me!” To which I replied, “That’s because of the medication—it helps me not to be depressed.”

Another doctor suggested I see a therapist and I said, “I’ve done years of talk therapy and have met with four different therapists during my life. I know my depression well enough that if I need a therapist, I see one.

***

My depression is part of who I am and I am well-acquainted with it. When I notice the inner flatness I take a survey: how have I been sleeping? Do I need to increase my vitamin D and/or B12? Do I need to get out of the house and move more? And, as an Enneagram 4, am I veering toward the unhealthy attributes? If so, do I need to do a life correction and move toward the Enneagram 1? Or, is this the return of “darkness, my old friend?”

***

For decades I’ve been ashamed of my mental illness.My friends remember my depression at 19 and describe me as sitting in the corner at Bible Study with a pullover hoodie and greasy hair. I’m ashamed by that description. A few months after I began anti-depressants I wanted to stop because I was “feeling better and don’t need them anymore.” My husband wisely said, “You feel better because of the medication. You have a disease—the mental illness of depression.”

I don’t like the phrase “mental illness” because of the portrayal of people mental illness in popular culture—scary, erratic, irrational. I want to appear normal, steady, and have-it-all-together, not someone who lives with a mental illness.

***

When I first learned of the “dark night of the soul,” I wondered if that’s what I experienced. I asked one of my seminary professors and he quickly responded, “No, that’s depression, not the dark night.”

“How can you tell the difference?” I asked.

In the dark night you still function in life and you have full expression of your emotions,” he said. “With the dark night God is silent. God’s silence is leading you into a deeper or newer form of prayer.”

***

A wise friend suggested that I “befriend my depression” which seemed ridiculous to me. Nevertheless, I’ve pondered this idea and I have come to understand that to befriend my depression is to accept it as an essential part of me as much as my delight at a good joke. To befriend my depression means not disowning and heaping shame on this part of me in an attempt to appear normal. I will never be cured of my depression but medication helps me manage it. I know I will need to introduce this friend to future doctors as “my friend.”

I consider my daily pill as a gift from God. And because that pill is a gift from God it is a daily reminder of my dependency on God. I cannot make myself whole, only God can and there is the grace which allows me to befriend my depression.

befriending depression (4)

A Lesson in Yielding: St. Kevin of Glendalough

(St. Kevin of Glendalough’s Feast Day is June 3 and I returned to my reflection just after we returned from our trip to Ireland in 2016. I offer it again to you.)

 

Kevin of G.

 

Last fall Kevin and I participated in the The Soul’s Slow Ripening: Monastic Wisdom for Discernment pilgrimage in Ireland. We learned about St. Kevin of Glendalough, an important figure in Celtic Christianity and we were intrigued with the most famous story about St. Kevin holding a bird in his hand while he prayed.

A little background: the original Kevin is somewhat mysterious—it is challenging to know where the facts about him end and the myths begin. For instance, it is said that Kevin was born in 498 and died in 618 giving him about 120 years of life.

He lived as a hermit in a cave in Glendalough yet he attracted people and created community—his cave became the hub of a monastery.

Many of the stories about St. Kevin suggest that he had a deep relationship with the natural world. For example, one legend is that the loneliness of a hermit’s life was alleviated when “the branches and leaves of the trees sometimes sang sweet songs to him.”

Then there is the famous story of St. Kevin and the blackbird.

One day, as the story goes, Kevin was praying with his arm outstretched in his cell in the monastery. The cell was so small that his right arm had to poke out through the window. As he was praying, a blackbird came and nestled in his hand. Then the blackbird started to build a nest. When the nest was complete, the blackbird laid an egg.

Once Kevin realized that the nest and the egg were in his hand, he decided not to move until the egg had hatched and the fledgling had flown away. He didn’t want to risk breaking the egg.

One of the great things about legends is that simple stories are never that simple. This one works on several levels: a good deal of Celtic spirituality is about finding love in hard places; it is about both blood and stone. So, here we have St. Kevin, in his austere cell, undertaking something which is painful and difficult. Another level of the story is the small chick, a fragile creature for which Kevin feels great tenderness, inviting nurture and the pain that might involve. And another facet is yielding to what is emerging.

When we returned home, I ordered the Dancing Monk icon of St. Kevin (from Rabbit Room Arts) then found a small wood hand sculpture and I added a small nest with a bird. These reminders of St. Kevin have been on our home altar since October and I pass it several times a day and  I reflect on these invitations:

*I am invited to yield to what is, to what has been, and what will be.

*I am also invited to pray for the patience of St. Kevin because I sorely lack it.

*And I am invited to submit to God’s work in me, in (my) Kevin, and in our lives.

Kevin of Glendalough Dancing Monk

Seamus Heaney wrote this lovely poem:

St. Kevin and the Blackbird

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands

And lays in it and settles down to nest.

 

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

 

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

 

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

 

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eyed blank of underneath

 

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,

“To labour and not to seek reward,” he prays,

 

A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

The Spirit Level, 1996

 

Also, Christine Valters Paintner wrote this exquisite poem here.

Questions I ponder:

  • How many times in my life do I reach out my hands for a particular purpose and something else arrives?
  • What needs to be surrendered or yielded in my life for new life to emerge?
  • What might need nurturing? Is there anything holding me back from nurture: fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of what it might cost?

Ashamed No More

blog--2-20-18 broken chains

Millions of people are familiar with Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability and shame beginning with her 2010 TED talk on YouTube. Brown originally thought only a few hundred people would watch the video but it was quickly forwarded and shared around the internet world. She has admitted to feeling enormous shame over doing a TED talk about vulnerability and shame but she is learning to “embrace vulnerability and transform the shame.”

Brown is a social researcher who has studied the connection of shame and vulnerability. Her research reveals that our shame blocks our ability and willingness to be vulnerable and to live, as she describes it, “whole-hearted lives.” According to Brown, there are three universal truths about shame: 1) we all have it; 2) we’re all afraid to talk about it; and 3) the less we talk about it, the more we have it.

The Lent season invites us to face our shame and allow God to transform our shame into honor before God. I read in Leader magazine that “To be shamed, to be recognized as less than the image one has carefully crafted to bestow honor on one’s family and community, destroys people psychologically and spiritually.” The writers continued: “We need salvation from the disgrace we suffer and need to have our honor restored.” This is our Lenten journey—to allow the old patterns of disgrace and shame to be broken by what God has done in and through Jesus. Because Jesus Christ’s shameful death by crucifixion is redeemed by his resurrection, our shame is also redeemed.

To talk about shame in church, and especially in worship, takes courage and conviction because shame touches the deepest places of our hearts. Shame is even difficult to talk about even with those we are closest to, because shame indicates the disgrace we feel in failure—either by actively having done something wrong or by having failed to do something right, as we see in Prov. 14: 33-35: “Wisdom is at home in the mind of one who has understanding but it is not known in the heart of fools. Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people. A servant who deals wisely has the king’s favor, but his wrath falls on one who acts shamefully.”

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of knowledge, their eyes were opened—dare we say they felt shame?–covered up their nakedness from one another, and then hid from God. What happened after God confronted them? Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake. They covered up, they hid themselves, and they blamed others (Genesis 3).  Adam and Eve give us the first example of shame. It seems that shame is embedded in us at a cellular level—and because it embedded in us, that only an act of God can heal our shame through Jesus Christ. The transformation of our shame is a gift from God.

But, while transformation is God’s doing, we cannot be passive recipients of God’s healing, transforming work rather we must be active participants with God. Ever since the day God formed us from the dust of the earth and breathed life into us, we have been called into partnership with God. God seldom works alone. God often works with and through humanity. We are coworkers with God to bring about healing and transformation. We co-labor with God to bring about God’s reign here on earth, as in heaven. We participate with God in our own healing through our faithfulness to God.

As collaborators with God, then we need to consider what we can do to transform the shame in our lives and in our congregations. According to Brown, we need to talk about shame for healing to take hold in the depths of our hearts. This might mean talking privately with a pastoral counselor, spiritual director, or a psychotherapist. Or, we can learn from Twelve Step groups who do talk about their lives and the things they are ashamed about for it is in the talking—the confessing—the shame begins to be healed.

If a church does dare to talk about shame, there will probably be some pushback—or some kind of resistance—because people will not naturally or willingly talk about shame and woundedness. But what if a congregation does embrace God’s offer to heal shame this Lenten season? Then I think we become close to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s preference for a church to be “a church of sinners rather than a church of saints,” as he describes in Life Together.

Brown describes this healing as becoming “authentic” and “risking vulnerability” and she frames this as “wholehearted living.” I would reframe her language to the abundant living of carrying Jesus’ yoke from his promise in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

To live as Jesus does gives us an opportunity to live in the Spirit and to take his light burden means to live in freedom from shame and the isolation that being bound in shame does to us. Carrying Jesus’ yoke restores us to honor—to trustworthiness, freedom, and humility. Humility means making peace with our shame because we know ourselves to be both forgiven and loved by the One who is without shame.

This Lent season provides us with a framework to touch those tender, wounded places of shame, to talk about the shame, and in turn, offer it all to God for God’s healing, forgiving touch. God is doing a new thing, recognizing our true nature and making a way for us to become fully human again. By the time we arrive at Easter we can boldly sing with the hymn writer of “And Can It Be”

“My chains fell off, my heart was free,

I rose, went forth and followed Thee.”

We can joyfully proclaim, “Ashamed no more!”

 

Listening as an Act of Love

listening (3)

In the late 1980s, in a small group gathering, Dallas Willard said: “Listening is an act of love.” I had chills as I recognized the truth of his statement and I quickly wrote it down. I’ve been ruminating on this phrase for thirty years now. And I try to listen lovingly as a spouse, a family member, a friend, a spiritual director, and a church member. When I listen with love or am listened to with love, the competing, clamoring internal voices are quieted down and God’s own voice can be heard.

 

During the recent Christmas holiday my husband, Kevin, and I traveled to Southern California to be with my family. We live in Michigan and don’t often see my family but connect via phone and/or social media and had not visited my family for a few years. I was anxious because I’m not always certain how we will be received—will we be in the way of everyone else’s plans? Will people make time for us? Will people be interested in our lives? Will they listen to us and our stories?

 

My anxiety is grounded in my (unhealthy) desire to not be a bother to people. I don’t want to make presumptions on others because what if I am rejected? I am not certain that people are interested in me and my life so I fret before a visit home.

 

I did make plans to for us to visit Dennis, Susan, and their sons on Susan’s birthday. I’ve been friends with them for forty years while their friendship with Kevin is briefer and as my spouse. I wondered: will they be interested in Kevin? Will my friends talk with Kevin or only to me? Will they ask him questions about his experiences, observations, the state of his soul?

 

As our time together progressed, Susan began asking Kevin about his work. As she talked with him, she leaned toward the dining table and rested her elbow on it with her chin cupped in her hand. She was listening intently to his story of vocational discernment. And the more she listened the more Kevin shared. As she asked follow-up questions about his discerning process he moved into deeper descriptions of his conversation with his spiritual director. Susan listened carefully with a caring heart and his story unfolded. He was feeling heard by Susan. He was feeling loved.

***

When I lovingly listen to another I am giving of myself to that person. I am giving of my time, my mental, emotional, and my spiritual energy as I clear away my own concerns in order to give full attention to the other person.

As Jan Stairs wrote in Listening for the Soul, “Listening happens best when we pause and take time to hear more deeply and reflect upon the depths we hear. Our souls simply cannot thrive in a fast-paced life without claiming some time to take things in, uncover what lies deeply within, and mull things over … listening for the soul requires ongoing attention and sustained habits of reflection,” (p. 21).

In the conversation between Susan and Kevin, they both paused at moments to reflect—either in response to a question or in the answer itself. Both of them were reflecting on the unfurling of love within the conversation.

 

I have learned that I am able to listen to others because I have been lovingly listened to: by my husband, family members, my former therapist, different spiritual directors, and friends like Susan. Because I have been “heard into speech” (as Nelle Morton described loving listening), and have been accepted as I am, I can, hopefully, lovingly hear others into speech. I can lean in toward the person with open-hearted freedom and hear their hearts just as Susan leaned toward Kevin across the dining table.

***

Several hours later, after we hugged Dennis and Susan goodbye, we left our time with them feeling loved. We described it as “our hearts were warmed” by the attentive, compassionate, open-hearted listening we received.