Band-Aids

There were only a few people left lingering in the church that afternoon.  I had taken off my alb after preaching and was readying myself to head out with my daughter for some lunch.  I saw one of the few parishioners remaining talking with a man who had wandered in post-service; he was looking for one of the ministers to pray with him.  But, the clergy were in a meeting and the nervous yet kind-hearted person to whom he was speaking made eye contact with me, non-verbally communicating, “Can you help?”

I don’t always know whether I’m being helpful.  If I am honest, most of what I’m asked for I know I can’t provide: money, work, housing.  But I can provide proximity, and listening, and prayer.  So, I smiled and moved to talk with him.  I explained that I was the seminarian, not one of the actual clergy.  That meant nothing to him, I realized.  I was starting to explain it when he just looked at me and said, “but do you minister to people here, you know, do you pray with people?” and I said yes.  “Then you’re who I need!” he said with enthusiasm.  I appreciated his confidence, although I wasn’t quite as convinced.

Billy and I walked from the parish hall to the church, and sat in the back of the nave.  He told me his story, and I listened.  Like many stories, his was filled with hope and with struggle; strengths mixed in with serious challenges to his daily functioning.  Once his words started to come out, he was a stream of consciousness of his hopes and his dreams; his disappointments and failures.  At the heart of his story was the question that so many of us face, “what do I do now?”

We spoke of his options, of those who he could trust to help, of service and people that I know.  There weren’t any easy fixes.  He knew that already.  I held his hands, and we prayed together for wisdom and discernment.  I offered what I had, a bus pass.  He was grateful but added, “this will help and I’m so grateful; but honestly your prayers mean the most.”

I knew he meant it.

I had just seen him off, and went to find my daughter who was intently examining the patterns in a stained glass mosaic, having been in ear-shot of the whole conversation.  We were standing in the alcove when a woman came in through the Red Doors, not hesitating for a second.  She was older, with a big pink hat that covered all of her matted hair.  She carried a large pocket book which contained the bulk of her personal belongings.  She had very few teeth, but a very large smile.  She looked like the church had been her destination, although service had been over for quite some time already.

When she held out her hand to greet me, the twisted and arthritic state of her extremities was more evident.  She immediately said, “ma’am, I’m hoping that you might have some soap, and a band-aid.”  I smiled, “I can help with that” I said, and motioned to her to follow me.  As we walked together, she explained her condition: scleroderma.  I looked at her hands, and was immediately transported back to memories of my Great Aunt Marcella who spent the part of her life when I knew her suffering from the same disease.  I saw the calcium deposits against her skin.  I felt some of her pain, involuntarily.  I showed her to a sink, where there was warm water, and soap, and towels.  She ran her hands under the water, gratefully.  I made sure she had towels, and left her to find some band-aids.

When I came back, I brought band-aids and some gentle cleansing wipes for her to put in her purse, along with a small hand lotion.  She smiled, “that will be enough!” she said.  We also prayed: for courage, for strength, for healing.

I walked her to the doors as well, sending her on her way with a bit more comfort than when she left.  I realized my daughter had been waiting for me for quite a while at this point.  When I found her she said, “So is this what it’s like, Mom?”  I was puzzled.  “You know, healing.  Like you preached about.  This is what it’s really like, isn’t it?”

I think sometimes we need fresh eyes to see what is really taking place in the ordinary moments of our everyday lives.

What if the real miracle isn’t in the disappearance of our human hurting, but in the sharing of human pain and divine grace?  Who am I to say that the warm waters of a bathroom sink aren’t the healing streams of mercy?  Why can’t healing be hand-lotion and band-aids, which appear right when we need them most?  Who am I to diminish the proximal gift of presence? Neither Sunday guest left feeling worse than  in their walking through the doors; each one left refreshed, enfolded in prayer.

I thought about the Gospel lesson that I had walked through in my sermon.  Healing wasn’t immediate, and it wasn’t without messiness, wandering, cleansing, returning, believing.  It rarely is. Healing is a process of our lifetimes, whether we are the one coming in through the Red Doors, or the one discerning their steps and offering what we can of our humanness to touch another soul.  There is healing in the action, in the faithful asking and seeking and receiving.  There is healing in the prayers of proximity, for all of us.

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My Shepherd

My well intended daily lenten blog writing has taken a back-seat to several weeks where it seemed a perfect storm of stress, health, and existential challenges were making it difficult to remain upright, let alone find public words to share.  But, I’ve returned to health and happiness and circled back to the fold of friends and family.

As I prepared to preach this week, I realized that my sermon writing was preaching to me, from the refrains that seemed to be ever-present in my mind these recent weeks to the unfolding of the Gospel message through these images.  I hope this homily prepared for today speaks to your own soul; now that I’m back in the fold of my blog space, I also hope to resume my lenten writing.  I’m fairly sure that having been shepherded back, words will find me.

Love and peace….

Sarah

A homily for Lent 4, Year A:  Prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Lectionary Readings

“The King of Love, my shepherd is…whose goodness faileth never…

I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever.”

This first stanza from this hymn setting of Psalm 23, appointed for today, has been in my mind constantly this week.  It’s repeating refrain has given me pause, and has made me think about this idea of a shepherd.  Sometimes, in our contemporary 21st Century lives, we lose sight of what it means to be a shepherd. Shepherds live close to the earth and often sleep upon it; they are up close and personal not only about their sheep but also about dirt, and water, and where the grass grows green. They work long hours, with one mission: keep the flock well, make sure everyone remains intact, protect them from harm, ensure that no lone sheep gets lost. Shepherds know that sheep are gregarious, group-minded creatures who can be trusted to remain together…well, for the most part. But if one sheep gets separated, the shepherd knows it cannot make its way back on its own. That is not part of sheep-nature. A lost sheep needs the shepherd’s attentive and familiar presence to locate it, to coax it back, to reassure both the sheep and the flock that they belong together.

It’s a challenge, living in our smartphone attached, multi-tasking, technologically savvy world, to imagine being a simple, focused shepherd. But imagine with me, if you will, what it might be like to have a shepherd. Not a boss, a supervisor, a mentor, a peer, a friend, a colleague…not even a dearly beloved spouse: a real, actual shepherd. Someone who knows where we belong, whose we are, and without ever losing confidence in the flock to protect each other will go to all lengths to be sure that if we wander away, we will be brought back safely home, reconnected with our flock.

The Lord is my Shepherd.

In today’s Psalm, the Lord is our Shepherd. In today’s Gospel, we may be initially tempted to hear a story of healing. But, what I hear given to us in John’s Gospel is the image of Jesus in the midst of shepherding. In the past two Sundays, we heard stories of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, and of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well by day. But today, we hear the story of Jesus, the shepherd, who starts out with his flock and ends up recognizing, loving, liberating and returning one of his own fold to goodness and mercy. This Gospel message finds us in the midst of our Lenten wandering, for good reason.

The Gospel story begins somewhere familiar for most of us: a group is gathered together, walking from place to place and…upon encountering someone in need…wonders what someone did wrong to deserve the unhappy fate they have just observed. The conversation the disciples were having wasn’t a nuanced question of theodicy…why do bad things happen to good people. It was a straightforward question of who was to blame: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” While its temping to blame the disciples for their short-sightedness, I think that we are also part of that flock. It seems like whenever something bad happens, our human reaction is to try to pin-point a quick, unilateral cause: Was the person with a cancer diagnosis a smoker? Was there a family history of depression? Who had someone crossed in order to be treated so badly? Having someone or something to blame for another’s bad situation gives our rational brain something to hang onto so that our emotional heart doesn’t have to break a bit more standing in the raw empathy of another person’s pain which could just as easily be our own. When we’re with the herd, it’s hard to imagine that we could be the one who gets lost.

Jesus, our shepherd, knows this.

If we listen to the Gospel story unfolding as the sheep that we are, we notice a few things about our shepherd:

  • Our shepherd isn’t willing to lose any one of us to blame and isolation. Jesus responds to the question raised quickly, and directly: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This partiular sheep, like all sheep, has a place and a purpose for the flock. Not only did Jesus insure this sheep didn’t get written off as lost, both then and now, God’s works are revealed through even this one sheep.
  • Our shepherd has no problem getting dirty. In fact, Jesus’ immediate response is to reach for the most basic of natural elements: dirt. And, wasting no resources, he moistens it with his own saliva and spreads it on the eyes of the blind person. Sit with that last image for a moment. Jesus…fully human and fully divine…uses the most basic elements of this world and his own earthy humanness as the instruments which deliver divine healing. Our shepherd is our healer and guide, providing the direction we need to experience transformation of the ordinary into lavish, healing love.
  • Our shepherd does not leave us, even when others do. Even after he was healed, the man born blind wasn’t recognized by his community; wasn’t trusted by those in authority; wasn’t supported by his family. Healing doesn’t guarantee acceptance on the world’s terms. It is Jesus, our shepherd who pursues the man who is cast out of community, not just to restore his sight but to restore him to love and fullness of community. The story doesn’t stop at healing; divine love and grace pursues us.
  • Our shepherd is persistent in seeking us out, and finding us. In the 23rd Psalm, the way we often recite it, we say “surely, goodness, and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” but that Hebrew word we translate “follow” is not passive; it’s more like the active word, “pursue.” Our shepherd seeks us out, and pursues us with love and mercy as the goal, earnestly desiring our safe return to the flock, to the plentiful green pastures where we belong.

In today’s psalm, we…the people of God…are the sheep of God’s pasture. In today’s Gospel, Jesus who is the Good Shepherd lives into this identity towards one, unnamed, socially outcast child of God who has been lost on the outskirts of his community, his family, and perhaps even his own sense of worth. In the earth-bearing hands of the Good Shepherd, healing is offered. In the hearing, going, cleansing, seeing there is renewal. In the sharing of that healing grace and mercy, there is transformation. In Jesus going back and seeking out the person who has been healed, there is recognition, belief and belonging.

But a question still lingers at the end of this story: “Surely, we are not blind are we?”

If we think we don’t need a shepherd, perhaps we are blind.

If we see like sheep, our eyes are opened.

There is another paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm that I particularly love. Some of you may have heard it; it’s by a composer named Marty Haugan. I won’t sing the whole paraphrase for you, but the refrain he offers of this psalm appointed for today, which is so familiar to us, turns it from a pastoral image into a prayer:

Shepherd me, O God, beyond my wants, beyond my needs, from death into life.

In today’s Good News, we are given the images and stories of Jesus, our shepherd. We wander this valley of life not as millions and billions of individual sheep going in our own directions, making even our divinely gifted, multi-tasking Shepherd’s head spin. Although… as an aside…I’m pretty sure, sometimes we do seem that way! We are a flock, caring for each other. We use music and meals and mission work and ministry to keep each other near, to remind each other of the Good Shepherd’s presence. You see, from the sheep’s perspective we have each had our moment where we were brought from darkness into light; from isolation into community; from the valley of the shadow of death into the verdant pastures of abundant life. As we wander through the hills and valleys of this earth we call home, we look for our flock. When find them, we do what we are called to do and care for each other. And always, because we are prone to wander, we rely on our shepherd whose goodness never fails us, whose tender love and mercy will pursue us, enfold us, and bring us home.

Shepherd us, O God, beyond our wants, beyond our needs, from death into life.

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Collegial Community

I am reflecting tonight on how grateful I am to have scholarly, artistic, musical community in my life.  I wish I had the capacity to attend every concert, every recital, every performance by the amazing musicians that are a part of my circle of community.  I wish I could get to every lecture, every research sharing, and every interdisciplinary talk.  I do what I can, but often wish for a clone.  Even in my own social science corner of university life, I have the joy of working with creative colleagues who span the gamut of interests from kinetic design to music to medicine to public policy and everything in between.  Today was a day that brought these collegial community relationships to home.

First, a colleague with whom I’ve recently met about a possible collaboration was featured on my University’s front page for her really innovative work with virtual words, kinetic imaging, and the quality of life of older adults.  Take a look; it’s fascinating: Virtual puppets developed by kinetic imaging professor help older adults feel more comfortable telling their stories

Later in the day, I had the chance to give a research talk with faculty and students from around the university, all studying interesting and compelling things in their disciplines of public policy, education. social work, rehabilitation medicine…and probably a few others I am forgetting.  I had a chance to talk about one of my favorite things: research as social change.  As we talked, and shared, and I heard their insights I was struck by how much proximity there is in my daily life to people whose interests and intellectual curiosity are diverse, nuanced, and beautifully inspiring.  My own research is stronger for my collaborations both in community and on campus, and I was happy to be able to talk about that.

Then, as I was rushing across campus this afternoon, I bumped into a faculty colleague who is Director of the Jazz Studies program.  We spent some time in a faculty learning collaborative together around Community Engaged Research a few years back which is where I learned about his cross-cultural jazz collaboration with the jazz studies department at the University of Kwazulu-Natal.  I play the album they partnered to record often in my office as part of my own “writing music” so even though it isn’t my own collaboration…I feel that link to work that is part of a common commitment to deep and authentic community partnership.

As I think about these seemingly random, serendipitous encounters of my work day, I am struck by the amazing quality of my seemingly ordinary days.  Today’s proximity reflection is gratitude for the people who are part of the circles of our life who we encounter by chance and circumstance.  My life is enriched by interconnections that build on our circles on influence, our cultural experiences, our “one reach further out” into a world more diverse and interesting than is contained just in our own line of vision.  I feel grateful for this privilege of daily proximity that I cannot take for granted.

Closing, for tonight’s reflection, by sharing a track from the 2013 collaborative jazz album from VCU Jazz and the University of Kwazulu-Natal Jazz quartet:  Leap of Faith

leap of faith

Listen to: ♫ A Little Soul Never Hurt Nobody – Vcu Jazz Studies/Ukzn Jazz. Listen @cdbaby

 

 

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By night…

This is the homily I offered up today for Red Door Healing Service at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.  It is all about proximity, though (as everything seems to be this Lent…my intention is doing what it was intended to do!).  So, I offer it up today as my daily reflection….

John 3:1-17 

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

 

Sometimes, the stories that pull us in are about the characters: rich description of those who are heroes or villains where we love to love them, or love to see them get their just rewards. Sometimes, the stories that pull us in are about the plot, the adventures, the interesting twists and turns that happen along the way. But sometimes, the stories that pull us in are because we have stood in the very same place in which the story takes place. The reason why the story of Nicodemus and Jesus sticks with me is because I have stood in the same place as Nicodemus,…well, at least metaphorically speaking…searching for truth in the night. Maybe it’s a familiar place for you, too.

I think what might help us really hear the words that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through this Gospel today is to try to stand in the same place as this story begins, standing in the shoes of Nicodemus.

Now, Nicodemus is a good guy, respected among his peers. He’s been elevated to a position of authority as a Temple leader among the Jewish community. That means he has been educated, and that he has talked the talk, and walked the walk. The Pharisees were a group who intentionally lived out the teachings of the temple in the world in which they lived and worked. By day, Nicodemus was doing everything that was asked of him to live into his calling and vocation. I respect that in a person, and clearly the other temple leaders respected him, too.

But what we read between the lines is that something else was gnawing at Nicodemus’ heart and soul. He was moved by the teachings of Jesus, and in spite of his understandable doubts about what it might mean for his life and work he wanted to know more. So, Nicodemus did what many of us do. He decided to follow the lead of his questioning, searching soul and sought out proximity to Jesus. But (also like many of us), he did so in the most stealthy way possible, by night. This had to do with his real soul-searching, and his real fears. I imagine Nicodemus thinking: I want to know more; I want to know this person Jesus. But I do not want to rock the boat. I have to be cautious. Maybe, I can go at night when no one else can see me…

Like I said, I understand exactly what it feels like to be Nicodemus.  I also can imagine how eager he was to have his fears assuaged, to be told that yes he could follow in deep discipleship and still remain safe and certain of his day job. That would be great, wouldn’t it?! But, Jesus offers up language that is challenging and mysterious. He uses the analogy of birth, of the entry into the openness of new beginnings in order to teach Nicodemus about the power of living openly and authentically into where his soul was leading him. Jesus doesn’t tell him that the way will be easy, or that he will be safe and secure. Jesus invites him to an experience of new life in spirit, fraught with all of the potential for growth and all of the potential for pain. This life, from above, is the life of spirit.

We often hear the end of this story quoted without its context: John 3:16

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

But it takes on the life of the spirit, as Jesus invites Nicodemus…and us…to embrace, when we hear it in the footsteps of this story of Nicodemus and in the lovingly imparted gift of God echoing in the next passage:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

In our cloak of darkness where we try to protect our own safety even though our heart is longing to be transformed by God, Jesus meets us. Jesus reminds us that the whole reason that we are drawn to Christ isn’t because we are being condemned or convicted, but because we are drawn to the light of salvation, of new life in this world in which we are living. Like every kind of growth and development, it requires something of us. What is required, as we hear Jesus speak to Nicodemus, is for us to receive open-heartedly and know that we will begin to change, to transform, to be a part of God’s movement in the world. We can’t do that sneaking around in the cloak of darkness. We do that by living in the transformed light of Christ.

The Gospel of John is the only one of the four Gospels with this story of Nicodemus. Although we don’t know exactly what Nicodemus does after this encounter with Jesus, it isn’t the last time we will hear of him in the Gospel according to John. He will resurface, along with Joseph of Arimethea, to take the body of the crucified Jesus to the freshly-hewn tomb. Nicodemus will bring a wealth of myrrh and spices to the tomb, befitting a king.  The poetry and images of John often speak of the light in the darkness, the Word made flesh, dwelling with us. We are invited, through this story of Nicodemus, to share in a journey where we don’t start out powerful and safe. We begin small, new, in an infancy of potential becoming where the light of God’s love invites us to move step by step into our full stature. That is what it means to be born of the Spirit, to follow Christ deeply in the open light of possibility. I wonder what thoughts of light and darkness, of safety and spirit remained with Nicodemus after that late-night conversation. I wonder how those thoughts formed in his mind when he laid Jesus in the tomb. I wonder what his response was when that night of crucifixion and death was broken by the eternal light of resurrection.

Like Nicodemus, we are invited to follow our hearts that have brought us to this place of proximity with Christ so that we can learn to become fully who we are, living in the light as we grow together more fully into our eternal life in Christ.

 

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Proximity to Nature

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Today, on the pier, I made friends with some fish.
They felt my presence, the pier buoyant with each step,
I worried I would let them down because I had no bread to toss,
But for some reason, they stayed.

The turtles were sunning themselves,
Basking in the sudden springtime which may change any day.
But on this day, there was warmth on the rocks,
A fleeting solar charge at unhurried pace.

Trumpeting jonquils announced an early spring,
Stray tulips bloomed brightly before their time.
Cherry blossoms bursting forth, streaming down.
Nature cannot hear that a freeze may be coming.

I am drawn to these late winter days masquerading as spring.
Fish, turtles, and flowers have no ulterior motive;
Their facade is accidental, responding to nature’s cues
Rather than the empirical predictions of meteorology.

Today, I wanted to eschew the science, and be with the turtles.
I wanted to simply be present, without worry
and without regard for the work piling up while I strolled.
I managed to be present for an hour; even that was noteworthy.

Nature gives me a lesson today; she schools my soul in stillness.
She offers me companions in fish, and turtles, and blossoms.
She gives me shade and sunshine, water to drink and air to breathe.
In the middle of this Lenten fast, nature offers a feast.

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To my Sisters

Tonight, I close up International Women’s Day thinking about my sisters of this world.  There are ways and issues around which we are so proximal, and other ways in which we are so very different from each other.  I love our resonance, and our diversity.  It makes the world a richer place to know the experiences of the other, both where they are shared and where each of us experiences personal and/or social challenges to being the fullness of ourselves.  For women, the fullness of who we are hits up against social expectations (and yes, limitations) of who we are supposed to be, by society’s standards.  Today, listening and taking in the conversations among my sisters all around me has made me reflect on the ways we are (or are not) in proximity.

Intersectionality is a phrase originated by my womanist and black feminist sisters to remind us that all women are uniquely situated in their identities: to be a black woman is very different than a white, queer-defining woman, for example.  We may share a common trait, but we cannot fully appreciate the humanness of our sisters without seeing complexity in all her varied forms and fabulousness.  But with that fabulousness comes identities which are less socially valued, or more easily overlooked.  The notion of identity is varied , shifting, multi-faceted.  I can dig deeply into my own identity, but I do my sister a disservice if I think I can lay claim to defining her own identity.

Knowing the other requires a commitment to relationship.  Relationship emerges from proximity, and proximity stems from trust.  Being proximal means we listen, even if we don’t like what we hear.  Being proximal doesn’t mean we agree with everything that we hear, but that we take time to understand it and challenge it if needed.  We can do so with grace and openness, or with bitterness and judgment.  The two approaches have very different outcomes.

Today, some women boycotted work; some wore red and served the public; some didn’t find the message of the Women’s March appealing to them.  Some showed up to necessary work but found their minds elsewhere; some showed up and lived it as any other day.  Each one of my sisters lived into the depth of the intersections of identity in her life, some harmonizing and some dissonant.  We are made in the image and likeness of God, each phenomenal one of us.  So to all my sisters, proximity  with each one of you as I close this day with the words of Maya Angelou:

Phenomenal Woman 

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Holy One, you made us all phenomenally.  May we look to each other, and see You.

 

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Proximal Artistry

Today was a well-deserved day away from work and school.  My daughter and I are both on Spring Break this week, something that doesn’t always coincide on our academic schedules.  But, this year our days off overlap, so we have planned a series of day trips and outings to local favorite places.  Today, it was the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

As we walked in, my daughter said, “Do you want to visit your favorite paintings?”

I laughed, because I do have a series of artworks that I visit as if a favorite friend or relation.  We often visit the VMFA for special exhibits, too.  But, proximity to inspirational works of art feeds my soul, and I needed that nourishment today.  Art speaks to me in a way that words cannot.

In that spirit, I offer a virtual tour of just a few of my favorite Lenten themed, soul-nourishing works of art from the VMFA’s permanent collection, freshly visited today.  Enjoy the virtual proximity:

Edward M. Bannister, Moonlight Marine (1885)

Bannister

 

Luis Berrueco, Virgin of Guadalupe (mid 18th Century)

guadalupe

 

Frederick Childe Hassam, Moonlight, New England Coast (1907)

Hassam

 

Crucifixion, ca. 1500 (stained glass with leading)

Crucifixion

 

 

 

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Thoughts on Bridges

Today has been an exercise in bridging the gap and feeling the strain.  Sometimes in this public writing forum, I can’t authentically convey the stories of what comes my way while living into my Lenten intention  of proximity without oversharing around issues impacting others.  So, instead, I want to reflect for a few minutes on this idea of bridging the gap in a very real and vulnerable way…the lesson is here, not the stories.

I sometimes think that the role of the bridge builder is diminished by being socially elevated as a never-ending supply of giving, as though those of us who span the distance between people have the capacity to stretch without breaking.  It isn’t true.  We actually sometimes snap and give way.  We realize that in our attempts to build proximity, we are not fortified enough, or the distance is too great.  The realization comes that even if a bridge is needed and desired, we can’t actually keep being the bridge without the right kind of supports: internal, external, existential.

I find myself having burned some bridges today, and built others.  I also find myself reflecting tonight that both are necessary parts of the same whole.  Some bridges are well intended, but not structurally sound; they need to come down before someone gets hurt.  Some bridges will be stronger for what I can offer of myself in extending from one side to the other with the support and suspension from above and below.  In my attempts at bridging, I have been prayerful.  In these attempts, I have gained wholeness and awareness of both limits and capacity.

I found this poem speaking loudly and clearly to me tonight.  Kate Rushin, poet and black feminist comes through for me on this day.  So, I share her poem, with gratitude for her vulnerable authenticity and spoken truth on which I continue to reflect:

The Bridge Poem

I’ve had enough
I’m sick of seeing and touching
Both sides of things
Sick of being the damn bridge for everybody

Nobody
Can talk to anybody
Without me Right?

I explain my mother to my father my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks the Black church folks
To the Ex-hippies the ex-hippies to the Black separatists the
Black separatists to the artists the artists to my friends’ parents…

Then
I’ve got the explain myself
To everybody

I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

Forget it
I’m sick of it

I’m sick of filling in your gaps

Sick of being your insurance against
The isolation of your self-imposed limitations
Sick of being the crazy at your holiday dinners
Sick of being the odd one at your Sunday Brunches
Sick of being the sole Black friend to 34 individual white people

Find another connection to the rest of the world
Find something else to make you legitimate
Find some other way to be political and hip

I will not be the bridge to your womanhood
Your manhood
Your human-ness

I’m sick of reminding you not to
Close off too tight for too long

I’m sick of mediating with your worst self
On behalf you your better selves

I am sick
Of having to remind you
To breathe
Before you suffocate
Your own fool self

Forget it
Stretch or drown
Evolve or die

The bridge I must be
Is the bridge to my own power
I must translate
My own fears
Mediate
My own weaknesses

I must be the bridge to nowhere
But my true self
And then
I will be useful

-Kate Rushin from This Bridge Called My Back (1981)
edited by: Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua

Or listen, read by the author, here: Kate Rushin reads The Bridge Poem

bridge night

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Tasting Proximity

I just came back from grocery shopping, my usual Saturday morning routine.  This was my first shopping expedition during Lent, and I note that having an intention of “proximity” combined with some Orthodox vegetarian eating habits is proving a bit of a challenge in East Coast early March.  My intention did make me pause and think, though, about what I usually just grab and buy without much thought as to where, when, why, and how it was grown.  As I always learn: that is really the point of Lent.  It isn’t really about what we give up or take on, but the intention that it creates in us.

Suffice it to say, it was a much longer trip than usual.  I’m also really happy with the interesting and creative combinations that I’m planning to prepare this week.  Whether my family is or not remains to be seen.  But, I digress.

I have to admit one big, huge, realization that occurred to me while shopping, though: proximity isn’t just where your body finds itself.  Proximity is a state of presence.

In a very real way, what I wanted to eat for breakfast all week was avocado toast.  That is definitely not local to Virginia.  But, I paused to think about it deeply instead of superficially.  Avocado toast is basically what I eat every morning that I’m in California for my seminary intensives, possibly with some berries and yogurt to alternate. I’ve never lived on the West Coast until these multi-week intensives, so I am part amazed tourist and part local partaker when it comes to what is grown locally in that shorter…but very real…bicoastal part of my life right now.  Local avocados (and Meyer lemons, when I’m there in winter) are like a culinary communion to this part of the country in which I am learning and forming for ministry.  While shopping today on the East Coast, I came across some lovely avocados from my West Coast second-home and it was practically a sacramental experience.  So, I bought two (at about four times the price I will pay for one in June), and some local-to-me sprouts, whole grain bread and an (admittedly, local hot-house grown) hydroponic tomato.

So, I am writing and eating my lenten brunch…and feeling richly connected, proximally, thinking about my friends who are living on the West Coast right now and those who, like me, live all around the country and will gather together a few months from now for our intensive studies together.  Eventually, our twice yearly mutual communion in chapel worship, during classes, and over shared meals…featuring local lemons and avocado and loquats and more…will live out its days.  It is a season, and a beautiful one that I cherish and celebrate.  Our proximity to each other after that season will need to be either carefully constructed or virtually supported, but it will still be there if we are intentional about creating and maintaining it.  But it will require that intention, just as our lives of faith are intentionally nurtured as well.

Proximity isn’t accidental.  It requires effort  and intention.  It is an act lived into through heart and soul, not only body.

Today, I taste proximity.  And it is a good, and holy thing.

Holy One, draw us close in thought, in heart, and in spirit to each other, and to you.

For further reflection: Psalm 34: 1-10

Psalm 34

I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.

O magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.

Look to him, and be radiant;
so your[a] faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
and was saved from every trouble.

The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.

O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want.

The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

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Proximity: Interfaith Intention

A visitor to today’s Red Door lunch ministry pulled me aside and related to me an incident that happened a few moments earlier.  Rather than concern, he was relating to me with wonder and appreciation how the situation he observed quickly resolved.  One of the student volunteers had been assigned to the table to hand out fruit: oranges, apples, bananas.  As he handed someone an orange, the meal guest threw it back at him.  The student just smiled and said, “would you rather have an apple?” and when the person walked back angrily, he just shrugged it off and helped the next person.  When the visitor said to him, “Why didn’t you react?” the student volunteer said, “I know he probably didn’t want to take it from me, because I’m Muslim.  He had said that before.  But, I’m used to it.”

I sighed.  This was very distressing for me to hear.  I value the fact that this faith-based food ministry in the parish hall of an Episcopal Church attracts student and community volunteers from all walks of life, all faith backgrounds, and we serve and work together in deep peace.  In fact, it gives me hope for the future to have such a beautiful, caring spirit breathing life to us all in the midst of diversity.

The students behind the table seemed fine.  I was tempted to brush it off.  But, proximity is my intention this Lenten season, so I drew near.  I asked the students at the fruit table how things were going, making small talk.  The incident didn’t come up.  So, I said: “One of the visitors suggested that you might have had been on the receiving end of an orange in flight?” The student volunteer, a young and gregarious student, just laughed and said, “yeah, I can duck quick…no harm done.”  I said, “well, it hurt me to hear that you may have been targeted by anyone.  We love that you are here and I apologize if you felt anything differently.”  The young student and his friend smiled.  “Like I said, I am used to it.  People aren’t always kind.  But I know that it is people’s fear that usually is in the way of kindness.  And this man, he is confused and I can see that, so there was no harm.  Everyone has been grateful and we are grateful to be here; we each have our own path and we are walking it.”

I smiled and grabbed an apple, offering the students one, too.  I noted that there wasn’t a lot else we were serving I could eat that day.  The other student at the table said, “are you fasting?  It is Christian fasting season, Lent, right?”

“Yes, actually it is, and I am,” I said, “I’m still getting used to this one.  I’m keeping a Lenten fast from the Orthodox tradition this year, so there is a lot that I usually eat that I’m not eating right now.  It’s fine, though…I’m learning a lot about that branch of our Christian tradition and praying a lot, and thinking of one of my friends who is keeping the same fast, too.” The two students and I began a conversation about fasting: the Ramadan fast, the Lenten fast, the various histories and contemporary versions of how and why we fast.  I shared my own challenge, how I had kept a fast in solidarity for one day last Ramadan when I had been invited to Iftar and how much after that I realized I appreciated water, more than anything.  I listened to the stories of their family traditions, their prayer traditions, and they asked me about customs of Lent they had heard about and how it all fit together in my own life.  We all learned things about what we assumed, what we experienced, and what was important to us.  After a few minutes of this engaged dialogue, the student said, “You know, it really is all about intention, isn’t it?  Prayer and intention.”

Yes, it is.  I stopped at that moment and said a silent prayer of gratitude.

We are more alike than different, people of faith who live prayerfully into a life in awareness of others.  Intentional living, choosing, relating, forgiving, seeking out where the threads of our live intersect.  We grow closer because of our diversity, our deep listening, and our prayerful intentions.

My prayer for us all is that we live into an intention of reaching across boundaries, loving and listening to our neighbors.  Drawing near reveals not only more about our neighbors, but about ourselves.

Holy One, your intention for us all is mercy, love, and grace.  Help us to see you in all who we encounter.

heart-art

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/qthomasbower/3470650293

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