Guided by Faith, not Fear

110834144_35bb54fe9b_oPeople are always surprised when I tell them one of my biggest fears is public speaking. I get very anxious before I preach—just ask my husband. And, of course, the bigger the audience, the bigger my fear. You should have seen me before preaching at our college’s Baccalaureate Service last May.  I was a wreck.

I have gotten better, though. The first sermon I delivered was in seminary when I was asked to fill in for a pastor at a small church. I decided to do it only because I knew I had to face my fear at some point and I knew this church had nice people.   It took me six months to write that first sermon and when the Sunday finally arrived every muscle in my back and neck was twisted so tight from stress I thought they were going to have to balance me up there on a backboard.

So I’ve shortened the window on how long it takes me to write a sermon. And I’m not having panic attacks anymore before I preach. But still, if there is one thing that would tempt me to give up this whole calling to ministry, it would be this fear. I’d much prefer to write up my thoughts and hand them out for people to read at their leisure.

In Exodus 32 we hear the story about how the Israelites demanded that Aaron make a new god for them, a Golden Calf, because their leader, Moses, was talking to God on top of Mt. Sinai and they were afraid he might never return.  The passage is a warning to all of us about the sin of idolatry.  But clearly it was the Israelites’ fear that led them astray.  They waited for Moses to return, and waited, and waited some more, until their minds started to wonder, “What if he never comes back?” “What will we do out here in the wilderness without a leader?” “We are so far from civilization, how will we survive? And what will we do without Moses to connect us to God?”

My husband, Dan, leaves for an hour-long walk every morning. He doesn’t take his phone—which I hate, because if he is not home in an hour I start to worry. And since I have no way of contacting him my mind starts to wonder, “Has he hurt himself? Did he turn his ankle? Has some student he failed gotten their revenge? Has he been attacked and eaten by wolves? Or an angry mob of Alpaca? (There’s an alpaca farm near us and they are not friendly beasts.) Yeah—when the person you love is not where you expect them to be—you tend to worry—you get scared!

And when we get scared, we often don’t think rationally (angry mob of Alpaca), and we tend to make poor choices—like turning away from God, melting down all our jewelry to make and worship a Golden Calf.

Fear itself is natural. Fear is human. We all know fear. When the scriptures repeatedly tell us not to fear, I don’t think this means we are to deny this all-too-human emotion. Instead, we are told not to fear because this raw, powerful emotion often tempts us stray from the faithful path.

Students fear doing poorly on an exam, so they are tempted to cheat.

We fear being ostracized by our peers or our colleagues at work, so we are tempted to compromise our values and act in a way that we know is not right.

We fear losing what we have, so we deny others what they justly deserve.

We fear our neighbor, we fear not having enough, so we build walls and fences to keep us apart instead of bigger and longer tables so more can be welcomed to the feast.

We fear for our lives and the lives of those we love, so we are tempted to worship our guns, and our military, and condone violence, convincing ourselves that peace simply isn’t possible.

White society fears the black male we meet in the street, so we are tempted to detain him, shoot him, and kill him.

Yes, fear often leads us away from God and from God’s expectations of us.

So what are we to do? Because fear will always be a part of our human reality.

Many religious traditions talk about the state of enlightenment as a spiritual goal. Enlightenment involves both the mind and the heart and can be described as a state of being “awake” or “completely open” to emotions, such as sadness and pain—our own or others—which fosters empathy and compassion within us. Enlightenment is also connected to our ability to love—the heart opens, flowers, blooms in this state of enlightenment leading us to see as God sees—leading us to see through eyes of love.

Fear blocks us from achieving enlightenment because fear builds walls around our hearts—walls that we think can protect us—like the fence around our home, or the wall built along our border, or the wall of prejudice and ignorance we allow to go unchallenged—or the emotional walls of anger, indifference, arrogance, or pride. We think, in our fear, that these walls can protect us. But the enlightened heart knows that the only thing that can actually protect us is love, compassion, genuine care and concern for others, and the peace that comes when we let go of the illusion that we are in control.

So, returning to Exodus 32, how would this story have been different had Aaron sat his people down for prayer and meditation once he recognized their fear? How would this story have been different had Aaron acknowledged their fear in genuine love and compassion, but then (instead of jumping to build an alternative god) he sat down, got quiet, turned inward, and focused on opening himself and his people to the living God? How would this story have been different had Aaron guided his people by faith, rather than fear? How would your story be different? How would our story be different?

[Feature Image: Loretta Prencipe]

Interested in Publishing?

get-published-in-literary-magazines-the-indispensable-guide-to-preparing-submitting-and-writing-better-by-allison-williams-1945736011Just a quick post this week for those interested in writing and publishing. I discovered, Allison K. Williams’ book Get Published in Literary Magazines: The Indispensable Guide to Preparing, Submitting…and Writing Better through the Brevity magazine’s blog last week. It looked great, so I ordered it and promptly devoured the book this week—reading in every spare moment. It’s a short, quick read, but Williams’ shares a ton of valuable information about the submission process, what editors think, and how to grow in your writing. If your goal is to publish what you write and you are somewhat new to the process, I definitely recommend this book.

The People Who Shape Us

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Teri as Associate Pastor in 1998

I am in the process of hiring a new Associate Chaplain to work with me at the college. As this search progresses I keep recalling my first call as an Associate Pastor. After some painful internship experiences in seminary where I learned that not all pastoral placements are healthy, I wasn’t looking so much for the perfect position in my first call, but rather good people to work with and learn from. I found that at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

Our Senior Pastor was the Rev. Dr. Lamar Potts, a tall Southerner with playful blue eyes and a quick wit. Lamar was Southern to the core. He grew up in Newnan, Georgia, loved country music and quiet fishing trips and answered to his friends as “Bubba.” Lamar was my first real introduction to the South. He made the best cheese grits this Midwesterner has ever tasted (because they were loaded with salt, cheese, and real butter.) He gave me directions not by street signs, but by landmarks and “how the crow flies.” And he taught me what it meant when there was a ribbon on the mailbox and a wreath upon the door. After listening to Lamar long enough, I even started calling you all, “ya’ll.”

But Lamar was more to me than an introduction to Southern culture. In my first professional position, he was the pastor I didn’t know I needed. As the church’s first female minister, Lamar encouraged and empowered me, making sure people saw me as an equal pastor.  When it became clear that families preferred Lamar and our other associate pastor, Brad, to baptize their babies, Lamar boldly set up a rotation where families would be assigned a pastor for their child’s baptism, guaranteeing that I would be included in performing this sacrament. Lamar helped me start to find my voice in the pulpit, in public prayers, and by turning to me for my thoughts and opinions during staff and session meetings. Looking back on this time, I recall my young self and am horrified by some of the mistakes I made. But Lamar just kept offering me opportunities to try again.

Spring Valley grew during Lamar’s time as pastor because people were just drawn to him. Children adored him. He’d frequently visit our church’s preschool and disrupt the teacher’s schedule because the kids would mob him for hugs.   Observing him and his way of doing ministry, he became a model of the kind of pastor I hoped to be. I appreciated Lamar’s humility, his self-deprecating sense of humor, and his heart—Lamar cared deeply for his parishioners. He was always there when someone was in need.

Of all his wonderful traits, though, I think what I appreciated most was his lack of ego. Most Senior Pastors of large churches have strong (sometimes even narcissistic) egos. But Lamar was as down-to-earth as you could get. He knew he was human and made mistakes. Apologizing wasn’t beneath him. I respected him deeply for that.

I knew Lamar meant a lot to me when I left Spring Valley for a new call. But as things go in life, I didn’t realize how much he had shaped me until much further down the road. It’s been fourteen years since I served as his Associate Pastor, but I still refer to things he taught or modeled for me.

Once, as we were robing up and preparing to lead a devastating funeral for a young man who died in an Alaskan fishing accident, I confessed to Lamar that I was scared. There were so many people flocking to our church for this funeral and I didn’t want to mess up. I wanted to be a good pastor for these grieving people, but I was terrified. Lamar looked at me after I confessed my fear and admitted that he was scared too. “If we weren’t scared, that would be bad,” he said, “because that would mean we didn’t care.” Whenever I lead a funeral, before which I am still always scared, I recall Lamar’s wise and gracious words and feel better about myself.

On a lighter note, a group of young college women made an appointment to see me a couple of years ago. They came to my office, shut the door, and after I was finally able to calm their self-conscious giggling, they told me they needed my help. Their dorm was haunted. They had seen a ghost. I listened, curiously (and a bit skeptically) as they described where and when they had seen this ghost. After asking a few more questions, I found out they were Catholic, which led me to believe they wanted me to perform some sort of exorcism. But most Protestant Books of Common Worship don’t include rituals of exorcism, so I was at a loss—until I remembered a story Lamar told me.

Lamar was asked once to help some church members with a ghost problem they were having at their house. “It was the typical kind of stuff,” I remember Lamar explaining to me in his usual dry banter, “Strange things happening, drawers opening by themselves, doors slamming shut when no one was in the house.”

“Lamar! What did you do?” I exclaimed, baffled by this curious request.

“Well,” he said slowly, “I just went over to the house, prayed some prayers, and threw some water around—holy water, you know.”

I giggled a little, picturing Lamar doing this. But I was also sure he took the people’s fears seriously. “And then what happened?” I asked.

“I didn’t hear about them having problems again,” he responded, with a sly little smile.

Recalling this story, I realized that I needed to take my students’ fear seriously and address their concerns the best I could. So I told them I understood why they were scared. Then I told them to go looking for the ghost. If they saw or experienced anything again, I would come over to their dorm to pray some prayers and throw some water around—holy water, you know.  Satisfied, the students left.   And I never heard about the ghost again.

I ran into Lamar a few years ago. It was such a random coincidence. I saw him at a restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. I was there for a conference and he was there to visit some old friends. We talked for a while and got caught up. His wife had died and his son, tragically. He was older, his health had declined, and he was clearly struggling with the blows life had dealt him. I tried, in that moment, to articulate what he meant to me. But I didn’t get it right. I didn’t say everything I needed to say.

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Lamar was the lead officiant for our wedding in October of 2001.

So I’m writing this post because I fear I will miss the chance to let him know how much he meant and still means to me. I would regret it forever, if I neglected to tell Lamar that I love him, that he taught me more than he could ever know, that he’s been my inspiration these past fourteen years and will continue to be as long as I am in ministry.

Lots of people shape us in life. Some more than others. The best ones do so never knowing the impact they have had—unless we take the time to tell them.

 

Intentionally Blank

In an article from The Write Practice, Jeff Elkins offers tips on how to find your “Thoughtful Spot.” This is a trick, Elkins writes, that he learned from Winnie the Pooh. “His Thoughtful Spot was a log under a tree marked by a sign that read, ‘Pooh’s thotful spot.’ It was the place where Pooh did his best thinking. It was where he got his inspiration when his well ran dry.”

After reading this article, I wandered across campus to one of my Thoughtful Spots, our college’s art gallery. I love walking through this gallery—slowly, attentively—when no one else is around. As I move from piece to piece my mind clears of the to-do list that has been oppressing me. I feel myself softening and opening in that creative space as I consider and contemplate the art. How did the artist create this piece? What inspired her? What materials did he use and why did he choose this medium? What does this piece mean to the artist? What does it mean to me?

Then I came to this piece, entitled, “Training” by my artist friend Stephanie Baugh.

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I love Stephanie’s collages. She pulls together images that always give me pause. This piece, in particular, caught my attention because of the white label with the words, “Intentionally Blank” typed in bold, capital letters. This sticker placed in the sky above the contemplative figurines seemed playful and humorous. It made me smile. It also reminded me of an important lesson I have learned through my meditation and writing practices: I need to make space for new thoughts and ideas to emerge. I need to find my way to “thoughtful spots.” I need to calm and clear my frantic, monkey-mind that climbs every distraction. I need to set aside my oppressive to-do list and clear away the clutter if I want the Muse (or as I like to call her, the Holy Spirit) to move and speak. I recently heard a writer say that we have to serve the Muse, if we want the Muse to serve us. This means giving Her our time and attention, clearing space for Her, leaving a part of ourselves intentionally blank, so we can receive what She offers. Our creative well will continue to run dry if we are not intentional about this practice.

Good Habits

6526240277_91faae6158_oWhen I am too busy or too tired at night to read, I rely on podcasts to take in content that will keep me thinking and creating. Last night, I was so exhausted after a week of opening activities at my college that I was tempted to go to bed along with my kids at 8:00pm. But that post-bedtime hour and a half felt too precious to only be used for sleep. I had to do something. So I stretched out on my bed, turned out the lights and listened to a podcast called Beautiful Writers on my cellphone. Gretchen Rubin, the best selling author of Better than Before, a book about changing habits, was being interviewed.

Answering a question about how to meet writing deadlines, Rubin explained that there are two types of people when it comes to getting work done—marathoners and sprinters. A marathoner likes to start well in advance of the deadline and have plenty of time to work steadily, taking the project a little bit at a time. This slow and steady process is what ignites their creativity. They need time to ruminate. Sprinters, by contrast, are people who prefer to work up against a deadline. They like the adrenaline of the final push and feel like that’s when they do their best work. If they start too early they can burn out or lose interest. Rubin added that even though sprinters and procrastinators can look alike, they are very different. Sprinters actually prefer to work up against a deadline. Whereas, if you ask procrastinators later if that is what they wish they had done, they oftentimes bitterly regret it and think to themselves that they could have done a much better job had they allowed for more time.

I discussed this podcast with my husband this morning. I am definitely a marathoner. I like to get up each morning and put in a half an hour to an hour on my writing. Then, I need to set it aside and ruminate until the next morning. This is the way I chip away at a project. It makes me very anxious when I don’t have the time I need to create. My husband is more of a sprinter. He ruminates a lot on his morning walks, then sits down and writes a whole sermon or a whole academic essay in one or two sittings. This blows me away. I could never work that fast. But knowing yourself, how you produce your best work, and how your creativity is sparked, makes getting things done and accomplishing your goals a lot easier.

Here are a few more of my favorite podcasts that I listen to while driving, washing dishes, folding laundry, and other mindless chores:

The Author’s Voice: New Fiction from The New Yorker.  I love listening to these stories, then reading them later (if I have time) in The New Yorker.  It’s a great study in writing to listen and then read.

Preachers on Preaching by The Christian Century.  An excellent resource for preachers.

Common Knowledge by the Interfaith Youth Core.  Lifts up positive stories of interfaith cooperation and action.  You can learn a lot about different religions by listening to this podcast.

Beyond your Blog–this is a great podcast about moving beyond blogging into the publishing world.  Unfortunately, new podcasts are not being added any more.  But the feed is still full of great interviews with editors.

The Accidental Creative–I learned about this podcast from a comic.  Todd Henry gives tips on how to stay prolific, brilliant and healthy in life and in work.  Some good stuff here and the podcasts are short–great for a 15 minute commute.

 

[Feature Image: Terry Freedman]

Is the hard work worth it?

8355036023_f4a5a9eaa7_oOur seven-year-old daughter has been learning to play the cello for the past two years. We are fortunate to have a Suzuki cello teacher at our college who makes learning music fun. But Ella still has to practice every day, even when she doesn’t want to. Being good at something like music takes persistent, hard work. I’m glad our daughter is learning this invaluable lesson early in her life.

The temptation to give up when things get difficult or when you fail to succeed at your goals follows you throughout life. I felt this temptation recently. After working hard at my writing all summer, it was defeating to get a number of rejection notices from magazines and journals that I felt sure would accept my work. But the other day I was reminded that I write for more reasons than the hope of publication. I reshaped my last blog post about the march in Chicago into a talk for our college’s Resident Assistants about how we can and should foster communities of respect and prophetic welcome. I also know that the work I have put into my writing over the past few years has not only made me a better writer, but a better thinker and communicator. Oftentimes what I begin here on my blog finds its way into a sermon or a program or a conversation with a student I am counseling. Is all this writing work hard? Yes. But is the hard work worth it? Most definitely. I just need to remember this when the next rejection notice hits my inbox.

 

[Feature Image: Jeff Sass]

 

Welcome to March with King

IFYC-Logo_SMALLFor the past three years I have sent or accompanied students to an Interfaith Leadership Institute in Chicago led by Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core. As the Chaplain of a religiously diverse college, I am passionate about fighting rampant Islamophobia and fear of the “other” through positive experiences of interfaith cooperation. But I questioned whether I needed to go to this year’s ILI myself. It’s difficult to be away from my family and the two students I was sending were fully capable of negotiating the conference by themselves.   Right before registration closed, though, I decided to attend because I wanted to support my students, Angela and Diana, in their experience.

It wasn’t until I boarded my Amtrak train headed to Chicago and reviewed the conference schedule that I realized this ILI would be different from others. On Saturday morning we were scheduled to participate in a march, organized by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), memorializing Martin Luther King’s first protest in Chicago. On Friday evening, Eboo Patel spoke to us about this march and its historical significance.

6700965631_4a90496306_oKing moved to Chicago in January of 1966 to highlight the issues of inner-city poverty and the city’s real estate practices that trapped people in rundown housing and overcrowded schools. On August 5th, 1966, King and seven hundred non-violent protestors gathered to march into Marquette Park on the southwest side of Chicago—a neighborhood off limits to African American residents due to racist red-lining practices. Of this march King later reported, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen—even in Mississippi and Alabama—mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.” Five thousand screaming, bottle-and-brick-throwing, hate-spitting counter-protestors met King and his marchers along the route to Marquette Park, yelling at them to “Go home!” At one point, King was struck in the head by a brick and the blow brought him to his knees. Several eyewitnesses reported that, after taking a moment to recover, King stood back up to march again without a hint of hatred on his face.

So last Saturday, August 6th I was transported, along with 250 other attendees of IFYC’s Interfaith Leadership Institute, by bus to the same southwest Chicago neighborhood where King and his protestors gathered to march. I honestly did not know what to expect when I got off the IFYC bus and I admit that my mind wasn’t completely on history. I had forgotten my sunblock and was concerned about the exposure. The new purple t-shirt all ILI conferees were asked to wear was annoyingly itchy and after two large cups of coffee, I was worried about finding a bathroom along the route. These concerns remained as our purple-shirted crew of 250 interfaith leaders hung together in the middle of the street behind a gathered crowd of about a thousand. We had been told to stay together and didn’t really know what else to do. But then I heard someone speaking on a microphone too far away to see. The voice sounded familiar so I decided to break rank, grab Angela and Diana and move up in the crowd to see who was speaking. We didn’t have to move up far, though, before I realized it was Rev. Jesse Jackson at the microphone.

IMG_1088I have not always appreciated Rev. Jackson’s political moves or aspirations, but when I saw him there in person it was like seeing civil rights history brought to life. “Oh my gosh, that’s Jesse Jackson!” I shouted excitedly to Angela and Diana as I suddenly became aware of the significance of the march to which we had been bussed. A need to share what I was seeing, hearing and experiencing overcame me. I pulled out my Iphone and updated my Facebook status, “Getting ready to march in honor of MLK in Chicago!” I took photos of the crowd that I noted to be incredibly diverse: Muslim parents carrying toddlers on their shoulders, Catholic Latinos marching behind their church’s banner, Jewish rabbis with a cohort of students, black gospel groups and African drummers, proud members of the LGBTQ community. People carried signs that read, “We are home!” and “The journey to justice continues.” I took as many pictures as possible, marching with my phone in the air, snapping photo after photo of the crowd that spanned two or three blocks before and behind me. I wanted—needed—to capture the magnitude and mood of the moment.

IMG_1130About halfway through the march I noticed an elderly woman being pushed in a wheelchair. Reporters and photographers swarmed her and asked her to hold up an old, yellowed newspaper that she was carrying carefully in her hands. The woman marching beside me noticed my curiosity and leaned over to tell me this woman and the daughter pushing her wheelchair both marched with King fifty years ago. The newspaper must have been a report of the protest that she had saved all these years. I watched them both for a while. In spite of the sun and 80 degree heat that was beginning to dampen my enthusiasm, these two women looked radiant, beaming with joy and pride. Fifty years ago the daughter was only twelve, I learned, and the heat of Chicago was even more intense. They were hit with bricks, separated from each other, arrested, and loaded into different paddy wagons. Yet here they were, still marching, in 2016.

IMG_1064Hot and exhausted by the time the march ended, I got back on the bus looking forward to lunch at our beautiful, air-conditioned hotel. I was more attentive, though, to the changing city landscape as we left the south side. Liquor stores, low-rent apartments, a man selling mangos and avocados out of the back of a truck slowly faded into the opulence and architectural beauty of a high rise, high rent downtown. Leaning my head against the window, I contemplated the mother and daughter from the march and all those who put their bodies on the line for justice. To be in solidarity with the oppressed requires such a bodily “being with” stance. It also requires a willingness to take risks. I wondered to myself if being bussed to a march I would not have attended had I not registered for an interfaith conference would qualify as solidarity. The nagging question of “Did I deserve to be there?” plagued my mind, but it did not ruin the power of the experience. Instead, these thoughts of “deservedness” were subsumed by the grander spirit of generosity and prophetic sense of welcome I felt during the day. Even those who bore hate in their hearts were treated generously. In his speech during the rally, Rev. Jesse Jackson said of the counter-protestors who met them in 1966, “They weren’t bad people. They were just badly taught.” And Eboo Patel, in his speech to us the night before, quoted the French poet Aime Cesaire, who wrote, “There is room for all of us at the rendezvous of destiny.” I was welcomed into a glimpse of that destiny during this Saturday march. It didn’t matter to anyone why I had come. It just mattered that I was there. And being there gave me a taste of who we could be and what we could accomplish if such a generous, prophetic welcome were extended to all. In a day when hateful rhetoric is on the rise and divisions between class, race, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation run deep, experiences such as this remind me that our brokenness does not have to be our reality. Experiences such as this lift up God’s vision for us of beloved community and set my feet marching towards this as our destiny.

 

[Image of MLK by Life Pilgrim]