” A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.”

These are the words of a tree in Richard Powers’ beautiful novel, The Overstory.  The story reveals how trees communicate with us and create community, supporting each other wherever they are planted. It’s a story that is giving me hope in these days of COVID-19 social isolation.

It gives me hope as I worry about the incarcerated men who have participated in our book clubs. I imagine them in their cells, living for a month now in lockdown, traveling in the freedom of their minds wherever their imagination can take them. I pray their imagination takes them to beautiful green spaces, full of trees that call them by name and seek to commune with them and support them.

It gives me hope as I reflect on the ways I am currently seeking and valuing community now more than ever. I could do without the grief and anxiety of a global pandemic, but I am grateful for the lessons I am learning: lessons about how to better conserve food and household resources, lessons about what work matters most and what can be let go, lessons about our interdependence as humanity, lessons about how our care for creatures and creation profoundly affects our human lives.

We are all holding physically still in this moment. And yet we can travel everywhere in hope and prayer and imagination. I pray for us to imagine beauty and supportive community. I pray we live into what we imagine for the sake of God’s creation.

[Photo Credit: Gordon Wrigley]

Connected to Something Bigger

This past week I visited my friend, Melissa Earley, at her home in the suburbs of Chicago for a writing retreat. We spent most of our time sitting at her dining room table, laptops and notebooks open, books strewn about, favorite pens in hand, while we offered each other writing prompts and read each other our work.

On Thursday evening I tagged along with Melissa to the Methodist Church she serves as pastor. They were having a Taizé service, which, Melissa explained in an apologetic tone, she expected only about six people to attend. “You don’t have to come,” she offered. And it was a bitter cold night. But we’d been sipping glasses of whiskey before a dinner of fresh mushroom ravioli. I was warm and happy and in the mood for community. “No, I want to go!” I told her.

Taizé services have grown in popularity in both Catholic and Protestant churches. This unique, meditative style of worship originated in the 1940’s in Taizé, France where Brother Roger felt called to form a monastic community. Today the community is made up of over 100 brothers, Catholics and Protestants, from around thirty nations. The ecumenism, worship and hospitality they offer to pilgrims who arrive at their doorstep from all over the world, reflects their mission: To be a “parable of community” that wants its life to be a sign of reconciliation between divided Christians and between separate peoples. You can read more about this beautiful monastic community at their website here.

I have incorporated Taizé style worship into my ministry at the college where I serve as Chaplain. Those who are new to it are oftentimes puzzled by its simplicity and use of repetition. People catch on quickly, though, as my college students have, and appreciate the way Taizé worship is designed to move you deeper and deeper inwards, to a place where you can connect more easily to God and Spirit.  You can listen to a common Taize song by clicking the Youtube link below.

At Melissa’s church, seven of us gathered in a semi-circle of chairs placed on the sanctuary’s chancel. We sang some Taizé songs that were familiar to me and some that were new. The verses repeated over and over. A soloist sang it the first time through, then the rest of us joined in. Later, a violin was added, and the more musical among our group started to harmonize. By the time we had sung through the verse four or five times, I knew the words well enough to close my eyes, focus on the liturgy of praise and prayer I was singing as well as the blending of voices and instruments around me. It was a pure musical meditation.

On the Taizé website I read: “Nothing can replace the beauty of human voices united in song. This beauty can give us a glimpse of ‘heaven’s joy on earth’ as Eastern Christians put it. And an inner life begins to blossom within us.” This sentiment was abundantly clear to me as I sang with Melissa’s small band of six. Afterwards, my friend wondered out loud about whether or not her church should continue to offer this service. So few come, she lamented. I couldn’t answer that question for her or her church. All I could tell her was that it was worth going out into a dark, brutally cold, Chicago winter night for me.

Oftentimes, in the academic community I serve, I am asked why I am so committed to the church. Sometimes I ask myself the same question. Especially the morning of church, when I ask my children to get themselves ready, put on a clean pair of pants, and, at the very least, wipe the frosting from our Sunday morning Pillsbury rolls off their face. When they don’t respond, or they do, with whines and complaints, about our Sunday morning routine, I lose my cool quickly. I start to shout, and keep shouting, until they do what I ask, and my daughter starts to cry, and my son goes sullen, his eyes flashing angry, and we all arrive at church in this mood. Why do I do this, I ask myself?

A sign of welcome posted by the door of Melissa's church.

A sign of welcome posted by the door of Melissa’s church.

My answer, though, always rises up and out and beyond me—because my commitment to the church really isn’t about me. It’s bigger than me. What I receive, though, is the reminder that, through the church, I am connected to that which is bigger. When I stop into a friend’s Methodist church where I am welcomed warmly and I know the scripture story and I know some of the songs, I am reminded that I am connected to something bigger than the small, rural, Presbyterian church my family attends. When I realize that I can go pretty much anywhere in the world and find these same Christian connections, traditions, songs and story, I am reminded that I am connected to something bigger. And when I am carried away from the smallness of this world, the pettiness and the pain that we humans often promote, by music composed by French monks working for peace, I am connected to something bigger, something Divine, and Good, and God. And that makes it all worth it.

A Room of Ten: Interfaith Immersion

I’m going to do something weird,” Malak whispered to Katie, her bunkmate for our six-day interfaith immersion trip to Chicago. Malak slips into her cotton prayer robe, its royal blue flower print covers her head, her arms to her wrists, and hangs to her feet. She begins her prayers, facing Mecca, alternating positions of standing and then prostrating herself with her forehead to the floor while silently praying in Arabic. When she finishes, Katie, a Christian, intentionally takes a moment to say, “I don’t think it’s weird, Malak. I think it’s beautiful.”

I wasn’t sure what would come of this interfaith immersion trip. I’d never led one before. But I knew I had a good group—three Muslims, six Christians, and one Naturalist, all living and learning together in one large hostel room stacked full of ten bunk beds. During the week we visited a variety of religious communities. We listened to Father Pfleger whoop at St. Sabina Catholic Church, gazed at the“O Glory of the All Glorious” in the dome of the Bahá’í Temple, soaked in the_SCN5122 smooth sounds of jazz worship at Fourth Presbyterian Church and sat in meditation at the Shambala Center. We giggled embarrassedly with the Sikhs when we didn’t know what to do with the pudding they put in our hands, dined on delicious Turkish food provided by our hosts at the American Islamic College, and swayed to the undulating music of the Hare Krishna chants and drums. Each experience was unique, each community welcoming and willing to answer our many questions. But it was the conversations on the bus, subways, and sidewalks in between these visits that made the experience meaningful.

After a long, full day on Monday I called my husband to say goodnight. Laughing over the phone, I described why I was so exhausted. “I’ve spent the whole day trying to explain the Trinity to our three Muslim students while also trying to navigate the Chicago subway,” I told him. “So, I got us lost multiple times and I’ve decided the Trinity doesn’t really make much sense.”

_SCN5087While worshipping at Fourth Presbyterian Church, I was confronted by an awkwardness I hadn’t felt before. When I realized communion was being served, a debate quickly began in my mind as I thought through what I wanted to do in this worship moment. This was my church and my sacrament. Should I go forward to receive it, leaving my Muslim and Naturalist students behind in the pew? Would they feel awkward and unwelcome? At first, I decided I would skip communion to sit in solidarity with those who were not Christian. But as the service proceeded I realized that later in the week I would be the Christian observing a Muslim prayer service—and I would think it odd if my Muslim friends refrained from participating in their service for my sake. That was their thing. This was mine. So I went forward to receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

Later, when I was the one sitting to observe the Muslims in prayer—the men in one line, the women in another, standing shoulder to shoulder, all their movements in sync—tears welled in my eyes. I’d observed Muslims in prayer before, but these weren’t just Muslims. This was Malak, and Mirna, and Hind—my Muslim students—three of our room of ten. Here they were doing their thing. And it was beautiful.

At the end of the week, we packed up our bags, leaving behind rumpled blankets, sheets, and trash cans full of shopping bags and snack wrappers. Left behind in this mess, though, was also a quality,_SCN5068 an air, that something holy and heavy happened in that space. In a day when religious tension is globally at a six year high, we need more people to have such positive interfaith experiences—experiences through which the “other” suddenly has a name, and a story, and a path that often intertwines beautifully with your own. We knit together a new kind of community in that room of ten; a community where religious difference does not prove to be divisive, but rather mutually enriching; a community full of human grace.


*Special thanks to Jem Jebbia and the Interfaith Youth Core for helping us plan and coordinate this trip!