Pulpit Courage

5955371645_6e3aed87a4_oI have been thinking lately about Dr. Brad Braxton’s comment that “the American pulpit could use a healthy dose of courage” as I contemplate two upcoming sermons. I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Braxton, but my inner editor is already shooting off warning flares about some of the things I plan to say. This Sunday I am preaching for a relatively small, older, Lutheran congregation. My sermon topic itself doesn’t worry me as much as a few lines scattered here and there that the older folks might experience as a little too “edgy.”

I’ve been moving towards a more authentic voice in my preaching. This means I am trying to be the real me from the pulpit by using the same words and phrases that I would use in common conversations with others. Unfortunately, words or phrases that would be experienced as honest, refreshing, maybe even funny, among my friends and colleagues are suddenly heard as edgy or inappropriate when up in a pulpit. So I’m worried about how this will play out—but not worried enough to change my sermon. As long as my mother doesn’t drop by, no harm will be done. Also, I believe the church is in desperate need of a more authentic voice from the pulpit.

Then, in my first Chapel Service here at the college I am tackling Mark 7: 24-30 where Jesus refers to a desperate, widowed Syrophoenician woman as a “dog.” This word, kynarion in Greek, translated here as “dog”, was known widely throughout the ancient Middle East as an ethnic slur used by Jews against non-Jews. The word represents the racist, prejudiced, ignorant beliefs of one people over and against another people. So it’s really hard to understand how this offensive word could have rolled off the lips of the Prince of Peace.

I’ve decided not to make any excuses for Jesus, though. I don’t think he needs me to protect him. (I also respect him enough to let him be his very own Messiah.) Instead, I am going to be honest about the difficulties in this text and reveal its dangerous nature. I don’t want to be a “play it safe” preacher when it comes to texts like these.

Even though I know what I want to say from the pulpit for both these preaching occasions, it’s still pretty frightening to go ahead with it. So I’ll be relying on one of my favorite quotes from Oscar Romero for inspiration:

“A gospel that doesn’t unsettle,

a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin,

a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of a society

in which it is being proclaimed—

what gospel is that?

Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone,

that’s the way many would like preaching to be.

Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter

so as not to be harassed,

so as not to have conflicts and difficulties,

do not light up the world they live in….

The gospel is courageous.”

The gospel is courageous and those who proclaim it should be too.

 

[Feature Image:  Alexander Fisher]

 

 

 

It is Solved by Walking, or Stair Climbing

16451260905_747f81dc91_oLast week I had no idea what to blog about until I went to the gym. After ten minutes on the stair climber, I had my idea. Fifteen minutes later on the elliptical trainer I had Three Lessons from a Productive Summer outlined in a note-taking app on my cell phone. Actually, I had ten lessons outlined. Seven got cut after realizing I had plenty to write about three. One of the lessons that got cut was going to be: when you have no idea what to write about, go to the gym. In the end, I decided this lesson deserved its own post.

Not long after my inspiring workout, I happened upon a Facebook post by my friend Heidi, the Vicar of Bolingbrook. Her post said simply, “It is solved by walking (Solvitur ambulando).” Intrigued, I followed the thread of comments and discovered that the quote is credited to Diogenes, a Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Cynicism. Apparently, in response to the question of whether motion is real, Diogenes got up, walked and said, “It is solved by walking.” Later in the thread, a friend of Heidi’s posted this excellent article by Arianna Huffington in the Huffington Post about the virtues of a good long walk–one of those virtues being creative inspiration. Nietzsche is quoted as saying, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Ernest Hemingway is noted for “thinking something out” while walking along the quays. And Henry David Thoreau described walking as the “enterprise and adventure of the day.”

To this celebration of walking, I would add stair climbing, elliptical training, or jogging. Any kind of rhythmic, physical movement focuses my mind and taps into the most creative parts of my brain. Ideas just come when I exercise.

Unfortunately, I always seem to forget this important lesson of creativity until it happens to me again. So this blog post will serve as a my reminder. The next time I get creatively stuck, I’m going to lace up my favorite, hot pink, Merrell Pace Gloves and hit the gym or the pavement. Because odds are, I’ll find the inspiration I need while in motion.

 

[Feature Image: Lower Columbia College] 

 

 

Three Lessons from a Productive Summer

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Lesson #1: Pay attention to baby sparrows.

A newborn sparrow surprised me last spring, unballing himself at the end of my driveway as I was heading out for a run. I had mistaken him for a leftover clump of dead grass. His feet, each with three long, hooked toes were bigger than his whole body. He stood and cocked his thimble-sized head—a shock of feathers on top like a scruffy cowlick—to get a good look at me looking at him.

This summer, during a creative nonfiction writing class, that newborn sparrow worked himself into a piece I wrote about my son as an infant. As I wrote, I was thankful I had paused at the end of my driveway long enough so I could write about the sparrow in detail. Afterwards, I promised to pay more attention to the “baby sparrows” of life, the intricate, intimate life moments that lead us to the best creative fodder.

Lesson #2: Ugliness reveals ugliness.

Another article of mine was published in The Christian Century this past June. In this article I revealed a lot about my preaching anxiety. At the end I even quipped about needing the occasional Xanax to get me through my preaching nerves. I got lots of positive feedback for the article. A number of people specifically noted, with appreciation for my honesty, the line about taking Xanax. Not everyone was so kind, though. One woman apparently felt like I needed a little lecture about addictive prescription drugs. Publishing her comment on the Christian Century’s website, she concluded that if I needed Xanax just to get through a sermon, then clearly I had a problem.

I won’t lie. Her comment stung—it stung so much it made me wonder if I wanted to write so honestly again. Then, Christine, my awesome friend and writing coach, helped me see this woman’s comment for what it really was; an ugly response that made her look ugly, not me. Ugliness reveals ugliness. Thanks for this timely lesson, Christine.

Lesson #3: Encourage others, as you have been encouraged.

Blogging can be discouraging. Sometimes you feel like you are putting your words out there for all the world to read and nobody notices; nobody clicks your link, leaves any comments or gives you any blog love. No matter how many times you check your site’s stats (and yes, some of us check obsessively) that beautiful blue bar graph of “hits” never rises as high as you would like.

I blog for a variety of reasons. I blog as a spiritual practice, as a way to develop my thoughts and my writing, and as a reminder to myself that I have something to say. So it’s not just about the number of hits or likes, I receive. (I don’t think I would have kept at it this long, if that were the case.) But it sure does feel great to get a little encouragement. A few people, in particular, have encouraged me through my blogging, by offering me more opportunities to write. For these people, I am extremely grateful.

So when I found myself at a conference this summer where a number of clergy were starting new blogs, suddenly I was in the happy position of being able to encourage others. I have been having so much fun since this conference, following my new blog friends, leaving comments, and sharing many of the opportunities that were shared with me. Most of these new blogs are written by clergy who are privileged with (what I call) “life encounter” stories— stories like “Bitch Wings” by my new blogging friend Melissa Earley, a pastor in the United Methodist Church. (Seriously, read that post of Melissa’s. You won’t regret it. Then follow her blog. She’s got something to say.)

Some might say that I need to have more of a competitive spirit about all this—that there are millions of blogs out there and I need to market myself and promote myself. But honestly, that feels self-centered and smarmy. I’d much rather encourage others, as I have been encouraged and share the blog love.

[Feature Image: Angelo Di Blasio]

Struggling with King David

303331939_1cdee43272_oMuch of scripture’s integrity lies, for me, in its honest portrayal of biblical characters. King David’s image gets cleaned up in Chronicles, but in 2 Samuel it’s hard to read about him, his vile actions, his immoral decisions, his rape of Bathsheba and not see him as simply despicable. I was assigned to write about 2 Samuel 1:1-15 for the “Living by the Word” column of The Christian Century. This is the passage where David rapes and impregnates Bathsheba then kills her husband to cover the whole thing up. After sitting with and struggling with this passage for many months, I wrote this post about honoring my relationship with scripture. Then, after living with David–the despicable king–for so long, I wrote this for The Christian Century.

[Feature Image: eleuki]

Holding each Moment

10176739514_0aaa3f47d5_oI am growing accustomed to an annual end-of-the-summer episode of the blues. I am wallowing in this place now, grieving the passage of time. Mourning the loss of the summer’s long days when I read and write and giggle with my children. All this and the summer isn’t even over yet.

No stranger to anxiety and depression I create strategies to lift my spirit. I will manage my sleep patterns and avoid alcohol. I will schedule time each day for that which feeds me: meditation, writing. I will stop checking my email first thing in the morning. I will read more in the evenings and watch less stupid T.V. Just making this plan makes me feel better.

These steps to avoid a downward spiral feel healthy. It’s never good to get psychologically stuck. But part of me is wondering if my desire to avoid the darkness is a desire to avoid life itself.

Into my wondering a new book arrives; a book of poetry by a rabbi I recently met. In Waiting to Unfold, Rachel Barenblat has written a poem each week of her son’s first year of life. I got wrapped up in this book immediately. Barenblat’s writing is clear and honest, returning me poem by poem to the first year of my son’s life. I appreciate how she captures the beauty of her first moments as a mother. I appreciate more how she captures the pain, the exhaustion, the post-partum depression. Each week’s poem is new; a multidimensional, complicated mix of awe, joy, exhaustion, grief, amazement, mystery and change. Barenblat’s ability to convey the undulating highs and lows, emotional chaos, and heightened nature of new life makes for one great year of poetry.

Out of Barenblat’s dark moments poetry was birthed—poetry that spoke to, resonated with, and held deep meaning for this reader. So even though there are experiences of life that I am impatient to see pass—like this time, here, at the end of the summer—and experiences of life that I want to linger—like sneaking into my children’s bedrooms at night to risk waking them with too many kisses—all of life, all experience holds potential and promise. So perhaps I need to simply hold each moment, like a newborn baby holds bottle or breast, and drink deeply of all life offers.

 

 

[Feature Image: David Precious]

 

 

 

 

 

 

I find you spiritually attractive.

2708943201_d085338809_oI recently told a male rabbi about my age that I find him spiritually attractive. Actually, I didn’t tell him. I posted it to his Facebook page. Immediately before adding this message to his feed, though, I hesitated over the following inner monologue:

Is this creepy? Am I over-complimenting? Will this be misconstrued as some sort of strange clergy come on? Should I run this by my husband?

I was in the mood to be bold, though. I wanted to share this compliment because it was true! I hit POST.

Then, I spent the next few hours scrolling, repeatedly (some may say obsessively) through my Facebook feed. I watched my comment linger and hang at the end of his post without one person validating it by hitting the cherished “Like.” Uh oh. I thought to myself in a hot flash of regret.  Maybe I need to explain.

So what makes a person spiritually attractive? Well, for me, a spiritually attractive person manifests a quiet confidence. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention and would never put himself there, but others do because they want what he has. She gives off the sense (or maybe even the scent) that she is at peace within, she is comfortable in her own skin, and this translates into people feeling comfortable and at peace in her presence. He owns his wisdom that he communicates by the way he moves through the world. It’s a kind of charisma, but it’s NOT about her. In fact, it clearly comes from something / someone wholly other than her. All the spiritual greats have it.

Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hahn, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Luther King, Jr, Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa all come to mind as people who possessed this quality—people who we could not get enough of because they had that special spiritual something. But even us “ordinary folks” can have our moments.

About a month ago I wrote a post about feeling magnetic through the practice of meditation. Here at my college, I’ve been leading a meditation group on Fridays at 4:00pm for the past three years. The group never really took off, though, until this year when I became serious about my own practice. It fascinates me how the more I meditate, the more magnetic I feel, attracting ten to fifteen college students every Friday to this time of attentive stillness.

There are a number of religious groups here on my college campus clamoring for the attention of generation “None” (a.k.a. no designated religious affiliation.) These groups seek to attract students through all kinds of methods: invitations to free ice cream socials, volleyball tournaments, camps and retreats; miniature New Testaments pressed in students’ hands as they enter or exit the dining hall; adults who dress and act as if they are eighteen. Honestly, I’ve tried a few of these approaches myself—it’s hard not to believe that free stuff wins in such a consumer driven culture. How good for me to remember, then, that a deepening, personal meditation practice is attractive food for the hungry. Perhaps it is the spiritual authenticity of the practice; the understanding that it flows from my own time of ‘mind-wrestling’ on the mat, that others feel like they can trust.

I felt this way when I met this rabbi—he was spiritually authentic; a person whose experience I felt I could trust. He sought me out later, by the way, to say thank you for my complimentary post.  I was so relieved.  I was also grateful for his ability to receive and own a genuine compliment–another trait of the spiritually attractive to which we all might aspire.

 

[Feature Image: Bill Selak]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to Say: Master Class with Marie Howe

0001-37193920“We have nothing to say.” This was how Marie Howe began her Master Class at the writing conference I am attending this week. Her point was that words come to us, words write us, if we can open ourselves to receiving them. Marie, in her kind, encouraging manner, was determined to teach us something she believed we could all do—radical receptivity. “It’s kind of a relief,” she continued, “to know that you have nothing to say. Because it means you don’t have to be smart or interesting, or holy, or high. You just have to wait and see what comes out of your pen. Just pay attention and let go.”

When my favorite poet told me I had nothing to say, I’ll admit, it was kind of a blow. I mean, my blog is called Something to Say. But I received her point well because my process involves writing myself into what I think. I, oftentimes, have no idea what I am writing about until draft after draft has been scribbled off and I finally discover where the effort is leading me. “Look for the energy in your writing,” advised Marie. “Don’t look for ideas. Run your hand over the page. Where is the heat?” The whole process is, of course, incredibly spiritual.

She had us writing during most of the class. You could easily do the exercises on your own. Free write for two to three minutes on the following prompts:

I could not tell

I could not tell

Today I saw

Today I heard

From what you have written in these prompts, pull out the words and phrases that contain the most energy, the most heat, the most interesting combination of words and sounds. Then rearrange them on a separate sheet of paper. If you’re not surprised by what is pieced together, do it again.

Here are the words I received through this exercise:

I could not tell what my heart wants or needs

or how I feel without her beside me

voices of frustration, my inability to share

I had made for myself and filled my own cup

how could she stop

[adapted feature image: Darren Hester ]