Longing for God

“I feel this longing for God.”

Sister Margaret, my spiritual director, sat across from me in a comfortable armchair as I shared this, her bible open on a small table next to her. She always has a scripture ready for me. I needed to talk about this longing, though, this desire for God that I had been feeling, but not able to satisfy. I needed to confess and felt my apprehension reveal itself as I did, my forehead wrinkling and my eyebrows lifting in concern.

Sister Margaret smiled and nodded in response, as if my longing was good. But it didn’t feel good to me. It disturbed me. Why can’t I find God? Why can’t I satisfy this desire to know and feel God? I have in the past. So why not now? What’s different about me now? What am I doing wrong? Where has God gone? Or, was God ever there at all?

Sister Margaret just kept smiling and nodding. She approved. In fact, she applauded my longing as a form of prayer—like the Psalmist crying out, “Where are you God?” and then waiting for God to answer.

But I don’t like to wait, I told her. Waiting is uncomfortable—because as I wait my mind starts to wander and wonder whether God will ever show up. I start to doubt that God is listening or even exists at all.

I recently read a description of Western upper-middle class life as like “living between two mattresses”—a well padded existence where we can satisfy every craving, every want, every desire almost instantly. In my affluent, well-padded world, I find it easy to distract myself from what C.S. Lewis would call sehnsucht – a German word used to describe the primitive impulse lodged deep within the human heart, a yearning or craving that can hardly be put into words, but that nevertheless motivates everything we say or do. Such longing cannot be satisfied by a trip to the mall, a late night raid of the refrigerator, or a glass or two of Chardonnay. The satisfaction these indulgences offer are fleeting and never run deep enough. I want and need something more.

“What do you think God wants you to do with this longing?” Sister Margaret asked.

“To not run from it, to honor it, to keep seeking,” I responded immediately, instinctually.

Maybe it was simply what I was supposed to say. But it helped to hear myself say it. It also helped to see Sister Margaret smile.

 

Praying at the Corner of Michigan and Ohio

2897091862_eea07b3c15_oToday I prayed for the man sitting, cross-legged, his back against the street pole at the corner of Michigan and Ohio. He held a cardboard sign like all the other cardboard signs with “Help. Hungry. Homeless.” written in bold, black marker. My prayer began with the man but led me to those who had made me aware of the man as more than just another suffering human. Crouched around him in a semi-circle sat a curious group of youth whose adult did all the talking. “What did you do today?” “Where did you go?” I heard the questions but not the answers as more and more people gathered, waiting to cross the street.

With my eyes fixed on the signal that would tell me when to leave this scene behind, I prayed about the man’s shame, about his being exposed—even more—by this doting group of urban missionaries. And I prayed about the relief I felt he felt as he slipped a new pair of Thinsulate gloves over his stiff, cold fingers—a gift from the group who would soon disappear. And I prayed about the knowledge of poverty, the awareness, the street-weary experience the group craved because I knew that craving too. His story was all the homeless man had. But that was all they wanted. So I prayed for the man to hold on to his story and for the missionaries to move on and for the wind to not be so cold and for the universe to be more right and our problems to be less complex because I didn’t know what else to do.

 

[Feature Image: Kymberly Janisch]

 

What do I believe?

1010219236_a00e9d4ef3_oWhat do I believe?

I oftentimes forget what I believe, until I stop to ask. People may assume I have my beliefs all figured out, given my profession as clergy. But I could ask myself this question every day. And every day the answer might be different. Some days I don’t ask at all, which is a shame—a waste of thoughtfulness—a missed opportunity for introspection—a day of going through the motions. I have too many of these kinds of days.

What do I believe?

I don’t believe in myself. So I sure hope there is someone else at work to make up for me.

What do I believe?

 When I’ve had at least eight hours of sleep, I believe in myself. I believe my actions matter and that my words can influence.

What do I believe?

When complications arose during my daughter’s birth, I didn’t believe God could pull out the baby stuck in my womb. In fact, I’m not sure God was present at all in that terrifying moment. I needed someone, though, so I turned to my husband. I pulled his ear close and whispered my prayers to him.

What do I believe?

I believe God was present after Tom died of diabetes. I hesitated in the door to his hospital room where his body lay in the bed, covered halfway by a white sheet tucked neatly under his arms. His widow, Diane, was sitting beside him. Even in the doorway I could feel that the room was thick with something. Sadness, yes, and the weight of loss, but something else, too. Or rather, something more. Someone else might describe it differently. Or not experience it at all. But I named it “God” because it felt like love to me. I swam through it, like molasses in the sterile, hospital air, to sit beside Diane and take her hand. Overcome, I prayed a halting, ineloquent prayer. Driving home afterwards, the experience clung to me like a stranger’s sweet cologne.

What do I believe?

I believe in evil. It’s not some shadowy figure out to get me, but it can present itself at any given moment. In the social inequity that confronts me every time I drive by the local, maximum-security prison and see all the African-American faces in the yard; in the image that haunts me of a young man in an orange jumpsuit, kneeling before his hooded executioner; in the degradation of our climate and in cruelty to animals; in all the ways we humans could do better, but don’t.

What do I believe?

I believe in the wisdom of the newborn sparrow who surprised me, 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 scruffy head to get a good look at me. Directly above his eyes, a shock of feathers stood up like a scruffy cowlick, or a bad case of bedhead. Thinking he must have just fallen from his nest, I wondered what I should do about this tiny life? He, perhaps, was wondering the same about me. Where are his parents? I scanned the trees around our yard, full of maniacal chirping. No one came to claim him, though. Or at least, not while I was around. Are you my responsibility, or do I leave you for another? Where are we in this world together? Then, he surprised me again, unfolding two tiny wings from the ball of his body, and he flew.

What do I believe?

I believe everything, God included, is in process. Towards what, I don’t know, because I also believe in mystery. But I hope (maybe even believe) it is somewhere beautiful.

 

[Feature Image: Dr. Wendy Longo] 

 

What happens when we die?

14316045313_d31106ab16_kA few years ago a student was referred to me because he was getting in a bit of trouble. He was drinking and partying too much and making some poor decisions. This behavior was out of character for this student and his professors thought it had something to do with the fact that his mother was dying of cancer.

When we sat down together in my office, the first thing this young man wanted to tell me was that he was not very “religious.” He wasn’t raised in the church. He didn’t know what he believed about God, and then, he quietly confessed, “I like to go out and have fun, I like to have a good time.”

“That’s okay with me,” I responded. “I’m just here to help.”

So we chatted for a while, broke the ice a bit, and then I asked about his mother. I had my counselor “hat” on at this point as I checked in with him about how he was dealing with things emotionally. All this was fine, but in the back of my mind I kept wondering why this student wanted to see me, the college chaplain? If he’s not “religious” why didn’t he make an appointment with our college’s counselor? He could have been having the same conversation with her.

Then it hit me. Right in the middle of our conversation, I interrupted him, and I said out loud: “Oh. You need to talk about death, don’t you?”

Hearing this, his eyes immediately swelled with tears. He lost control of his emotions and in between gasping sobs he nodded, yes, that’s what he needed to talk to me about. He’d never experienced death before, not like this. He didn’t know what to think or believe about what clearly was going to happen to his mother.

Then, this young man’s red, swollen eyes searched my own and he asked, “What do you think’s going to happen? What do you believe?”

And I paused for a breath–because in these kinds of conversations with students I don’t often share what I believe. I want to encourage them in their own journey. I want them to ask themselves the hard questions and come to their own answers. But this kid, he just needed some help.

So I told him that what I know about death comes from my own experience of it—from my experience as a pastor sitting beside the bed of Abbie, Flossie, Frank, Rock, Dot, Mirium, Blannie as they slipped from life into death.  I told him about those moments.  How sitting there, in the presence of death–every time–I felt this profound sense of love. To me, I told this young man, it was a sense of love that felt eternal. So, this, I said is what I believe is waiting for your mother and what I believe is waiting for us all.

I didn’t see that student again after our conversation. I don’t know how he’s doing now. I touched based with him a few times afterwards by phone and email. But in that moment, when I wanted so badly to offer him some help and some hope, it seemed that my answer was good enough.

[feature image: Carol Von Canon]

When Worship Works

4044933922_d27e258d54_bWorship doesn’t always work. It doesn’t work when your student pianist can’t get through a whole hymn verse without stopping and starting three times. Or when the toddler, who accidentally bumps his head, drowns out your sermon’s climactic crescendo with his screams. Or when your congregation, who faithfully shows up Sunday morning after a long weekend of mission projects, only has enough energy left to go through the motions. Worship experiences are certainly not all under our control.

I work hard at worship, though, because I believe it deserves my hard work. Nothing, in my mind, better inspires or better pulls a community together than good worship. Every year I tell my students that worship done well can transform a person’s faith. Worship done poorly can kill it.

In my position as Chaplain at Monmouth College my students and I lead weekly Chapel services all year long. In addition to these, we design and lead special services annually: Christmas Convocation, Ash Wednesday, Holy Week, and Baccalaureate. Seeing as the Baccalaureate Service is our church-related college’s premier worship moment, it gets planned a year in advance.

The planning process for this year’s Baccalaureate Service was particularly frustrating. We had lined up an amazing preacher—the Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer Oget—so we wanted an amazing worship service to surround her sermon. The Baccalaureate Planning Committee and I came up with all sorts of wild ideas at first. Special lighting effects. Flash mobs. Marching bands and drum lines. (The beginning brainstorming phase of worship planning, when no idea is a bad idea, is always fun.) When we narrowed our focus, though, and started hammering out the possibilities, we kept running into setback after setback. We can’t do this because so-and-so isn’t available. We can’t do this, because there isn’t enough time to rehearse. We can’t do this, because so-and-so has fallen into the abyss of final exams and end-of-the-year stress and is no longer responding to email. When the day of Baccalaureate arrived, I felt confident that what we had eventually planned would work. But I also knew that a whole host of things could go wrong.

In the end, it was beautiful—more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Things came together for this service that we didn’t plan. Emotions were evoked that we didn’t expect. Worship leaders rose to the occasion in ways that can only happen when they are inspired and feeding off the energy present in the room. I was honestly blown away.

And humbled. Clearly, what made this worship service work, was a divine guiding hand. Yes, good worship requires a lot of hard work, planning, and preparation. But it’s work that’s never about us. So when it comes time, after you as a leader have put in all that you have, the best thing to do is get out of the way.

God makes worship work.

[feature image: susanlloyd]

Serious Business

I enjoy reading the Paris Review’s interviews of writers because they are often inspiring. I ran across their interview of Maya Angelou the other day and was particularly struck by this question and answer exchange:mayaangelouwriting

INTERVIEWER

You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?

MAYA ANGELOU

For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times. Not bad. I’m trying to be a Christian and the Bible helps me to remind myself what I’m about.

I love so many things about this quote. I love the vivid image of Maya Angelou writing poetry on a made-up bed surrounded by sherry, a dictionary, a thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. It sounds like a perfect hot mess of inspiration. I love that Ms. Angelou includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Shintoists, Zoroastrians, friends, lovers, and mothers in her statement about trying to be good. It’s the perfect inclusive nod to our human desire to be our best selves. Also, I love Ms. Angelou’s honesty and courage in naming that she is “trying” to be a Christian, but that she regularly blows it. I blow it too. So I appreciate her saying this. Because, of course, this means I’m not the only one.

Overall, though, I love that Ms. Angelou described her work at trying to be a Christian as “serious business.” I have all sorts of respect for someone who understands that a faith commitment is just that—a commitment. And that it can’t be done well, or at all, unless you take that commitment seriously.

When I spent a week on a Spring break trip with a few of our Muslim students and observed firsthand their ritual of praying five times a day, I noted how this worship ritual shaped their daily life and consistently called them back to God. I go to worship weekly and try to meditate daily for the same reason—to return myself to God and to my commitment to practicing my faith.

Faith is not a magic bullet, or a quick and easy pill we swallow upon our baptism (if we’re Christian). Faith is messy. Faith is doubt. Faith is challenge. Faith is comforting green pastures as well as craggy mountains to climb. To say faith is anything less is a misunderstanding or a misconstruing of faith itself. It is a day-by-day commitment to one’s self and one’s God. It is serious business.

 

What I Know and What I Don’t

crop380w_istock_000003401233xsmall-question-marks“Why did this happen to me?” She looked directly and desperately into my eyes as she asked, tears welling and spilling from her own. I had moved to her good, right side so she could see me after her husband had slipped out of the room to speak to the doctor. In this brief moment of privacy, she wanted me to answer her “Why?” because I was the one who was supposed to know.

She was 37-years-old and in two days she had two strokes, with more blood clots lurking in her lungs to possibly cause even more damage. Her body was swollen and bruised, deep purple, brown, and yellow shapes covered her arms and her chest where CPR was administered for almost an hour. She was paralyzed on her left side.

“I don’t know, baby.” My feelings for her in that moment caught in my throat as I choked out this unsatisfactory answer. I don’t know why I called her baby. It just came out of me and the affection I felt for her. I wanted to offer her something. I wanted to say something meaningful. So, in response to all I didn’t know, I decided to tell her what I did.

I know you are strong, I told her. I know you have work to do, because you are still here. And I know this is hell right now. But, you are surrounded by love. You don’t have to face this alone.

She nodded as if she understood. But I don’t know what my words meant to her. They came from a deep place of passion, though, for life and for her life, in that particular moment.

Sometimes I wonder if I believe more in the divine gift of life than I do in God Himself. Because God doesn’t seem to be able to intervene in terrible, tragic moments like these. Wouldn’t God intervene if She could? Life can intervene, though, and love. Life and love can inspire us to find our way back to living while lying in bed at 37-years-old after suffering multiple strokes. Maybe this is how God works, then—through life and love and the community that surrounds us in our need? I don’t know.

I do know a deep desire to be helpful to the one desperate with questions. Is this enough, though? God?

 

 

 

 

A New Mantra: No Big Deal

183246_8db2604dfcbb2b58ffa0dee311ffb14b_largeI preached a dog of a sermon this past Sunday. Walking that dog for fifteen minutes in front of my small congregation was exhausting. I was working hard to connect—but since I was disconnected from my sermon, so was the congregation. Some people politely feigned attention, which I appreciated. Others stared out the church windows or whispered to their neighbors. A couple of teenagers in the back snickered and poked at each other. I’d wanted more time to work on another writing project, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pull out an old sermon to preach. The sermon I chose for this past Sunday wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t me. I’d written it in 2005 when I was an entirely different preacher. So the whole experience was tired and lifeless. Immediately after finishing I thought to myself, “I never want to do this again.”

Normally, such a preaching failure would send me spiraling down into despair. Afterwards I would wallow around in a depressive state and repeatedly ask my husband for words of encouragement to help build me back up. This Sunday was different, though, because of a new spiritual practice.

I’ve been re-reading Pema Chödrön’s book How to Meditate over my winter break and found myself drawn into what Pema describes as one of her biggest teachings from her teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. About this important lesson, Pema writes:

I remember one time going to [Rinpoche] with what I thought was a very powerful experience from my practice. I was all excited, and as I was telling him about this experience, he had a look. It was a kind of indescribable look, a very open look. You couldn’t call it compassionate or judgmental or anything. And as I was telling him about this, he touched my hand and said, “No…big…deal.” He wasn’t saying “bad,” and he wasn’t saying “good.” He was saying that these things happen and they can transform your life, but at the same time don’t make too big a deal of them, because that leads to arrogance and pride, or a sense of specialness. On the other hand, making too big a deal about your difficulties takes you in the other direction; it takes you into poverty, self-denigration, and a low opinion of yourself.”[1]

When I came to this lesson in my reading, I was writing a sermon to be published in a journal for preachers. I was excited about this sermon as well as the opportunity to have it published. When I get excited about something, my enthusiasm has a tendency to consume me. It’s all I can think about. Then my imagination leads me to some grand delusions where I do start to feel awfully “special.” So Pema’s words resonated with me, even as they confused me. Wasn’t it okay for me to get excited? I’m a very enthusiastic person. Wasn’t it okay for me to feel joy in what I am doing and experiencing? As I lived into the “no big deal” mantra, though, I came to understand it’s wisdom and it’s power.

I ended up writing a better sermon for the journal because whenever I started to picture other people reading it, or to imagine the positive attention, fame, fortune (Ha!) that might come of it, I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—which led me to be more real, more playful, and more honest in my writing.

After preaching my dog of a sermon this past Sunday, I repeated my new mantra. When I felt myself spiraling down into my typical state of self-denigration I told myself simply—No, Teri, it’s no big deal—and locked myself in my bedroom for about ten minutes of quiet meditation. After this tiny bit of practice, I was able to let go of my “preacher’s despair” more successfully than I ever had before.

Through the use of this new mantra, I find myself seeking a sense of equanimity, or a state of spiritual balance. Swinging from the extremes of high-flying excitement or depressive denigration will only lead me to self-denial, life-denial, and suffering. It won’t be good for anyone around me, either. To be fully present in this moment, though, to be spiritually, psychologically, and physically balanced, is the path to a healthy, whole, and happy life.

 

 

[1] Pema Chodron, How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind, (Sounds True, Boulder, CO, 2013), pp. 13.

Heschel’s Words

shapeimage_2I am grateful for my husband who puts words like these in my hands when I am writing a sermon. How does one adequately speak of God? Ask Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“God is a challenge rather than a notion. We do not think Him; we are stirred by Him. We can never describe Him; we can only return to Him. We may address ourselves to Him; we cannot comprehend Him. We can sense His presence; we cannot grasp His essence.”

And this:

“God is not always silent, and man is not always blind. His glory fills the world; His spirit hovers above the waters. There are moments in which, to use a Talmudic phrase, heaven and earth kiss each other, in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time. Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God. Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to Him. There may come a moment like thunder in the soul, when man is not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings. The voice of Sinai goes on forever: “These words the Lord spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick darkness, with a great voice that goes on forever.”[1]

 My favorite phrase here, “A moment like thunder in the soul.” I’ve felt that. Have you?

 

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Essential Writings, (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2011), pgs. 93-95.

 

A Persistent Faith

power-persistence-careerWhen I first read this Gospel text from Luke it felt really false.  After Jesus tells a parable about a widow who gets justice by continually asking, continually pestering an unjust judge, we get this summary statement about God from Jesus: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, God will quickly grant justice to them.”

Really?  I can go along with God granting justice.  But “quick” justice?  C’mon.

Seriously, where’s the quick justice for the people of Syria?  Certainly we’ve all been bothering God with our prayers for justice on behalf of the innocent men, women, and children being killed there.

And where’s the quick justice for the poor in our country, for the “have-nots,” for those left out in the cold, or forced on furlough while our government was in shut down mode?

Where’s the quick justice for our environment, God’s beautiful creation, that has to put up with us, with our unsustainable ways of living, with our appetite to consume and destroy?

Where’s the quick justice for those who are pushed down, shoved aside, and oppressed by racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, prejudice and hate?

“When the Son of Man comes,” Jesus concludes, “will he find faith on earth?”

Well, Jesus, if you’re looking for faith in quick justice, you’re not going to find it in me.  I mean, let’s be honest.

I was discussing this text with my resident theologian, my husband. (Sometimes it’s so nice to be married to a man with a PhD in theology.) We were in the car on the way home from a fun morning in the Quad Cities with the kids.  Ella and Isaac had their headphones on, engrossed in a movie in the backseat.  So I took advantage of the rare quiet to rant about this scripture passage to Dan.

He agreed with my point about quick justice, but he didn’t really feel that this was the point of the passage; he thought the message was more about persistence, the persistence of a desperate widow in the face of her unjust situation, and about how that persistence was faith.

Suddenly, Dan had reoriented my thinking on the text.  And as I have been living with it, its truth has become clearer to me.

It became especially clear as I thought about a visitor we had on campus about a week ago, Rick Ufford-Chase.  Rick is a peace activist and a leader in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)  Most of his activism has been focused on helping immigrants along the U.S. / Mexico border.  But he’s also been in the thick of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, and has led many Presbyterians to Colombia to accompany the people there as they seek justice from their government. I have admired Rick and his work for a long time.  So it was a thrill for me to spend a lot of time with him and get to know him as I shuttled him from meeting to meeting, and event to event.   Rick spoke a lot while he was on campus.  Every talk he gave or sermon he preached was incredibly thought-provoking.  But it wasn’t so much what Rick said that made the greatest impact on me…as who Rick was.

Every moment I spent with Rick was intense.  Every conversation I had with him was about something that mattered. He clearly knew his purpose in life, and that purpose was to live every moment of every day seeking justice for God’s children.  This purpose influenced what he ate, how he dressed, whether he chose to drive or walk to his next meeting. Rick embodied persistence.  He was one of the most faithful people I have ever met.

He was also one of the most exhausting.  When he left I collapsed!  I was so tired from all that intensity of thought and persistence of faith. So I know how the unjust judge felt in Jesus’ parable when the widow kept bothering him with her persistent requests.  He finally grants her request so that (as it says in verse 5) “she may not wear me out by continually coming.”  That is the power of persistence.

While here, Rick gave a fascinating lecture about his work on behalf of immigrants on the Mexican border.  He talked about how citizens can foster social change and chip away at unjust systems through acts of civil initiative.  One example he gave was how his activist group on the border placed blue plastic wells of water in the desert, or in the corridors of death, through which Mexican immigrants are trying to come into our country. By doing this Rick’s group had saved lives, people who would have otherwise died of dehydration in the desert.  But (we wondered with Rick in a Q and A time after his lecture) the problems associated with immigration are so big and so complex.  Putting wells of water in the desert certainly saves some lives, but this is a huge structural, systemic problem, how can we possibly solve this or other issues like it?  Rick remained persistent, though, even as we asked these questions.  He remained persistent in his message that these small, strategic efforts matter and are worth doing.

Then my husband, Dan, asked Rick a good question.  He asked, “Rick, how do you get out of bed in the morning?” In light of all the injustice and all the problems in the world that Rick seemed intent on tackling, how does he get out of bed?  How does he keep going?

Rick’s answer was fascinating.  He paused, lowered his head thoughtfully and said, “Sometimes I get in trouble for saying this, but for me it’s not about hope.  Hope is for the privileged.  I’ve been with too many hopeless people, to many despairing people, to rely on hope to get me out of bed in the morning.” Then Rick looked at us and said,  “Instead, it’s about my faith.  I am called to get out of bed in the morning because my faith tells me I must.  I have no other choice.  It’s who I am.”

So the meaning of Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow has become clearer to me.  I am reminded of the unjust societal system of the 1st Century that forced widows into the most poor, most vulnerable, most desperate of situations.  The widow in Jesus’ parable actually had no other option than to persistently pester the judge for justice, to wear the judge out with her requests.  She had no other option.

We do, though.  We have options.  We who are not hopeless….

So when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

Dear God, I pray that you will find faith, a persistent faith, in me and in all your people, when you come again because then, and perhaps only then, will we know justice here on earth.  Amen.