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.

The Practice of Doing Nothing: Sitting with my Suffering (Part 2)

Fear 1On a bright summer morning, I dropped my 5-year-old daughter off at day camp placing her in the care of counselors who all appeared to be in high school. Looking at Ella’s counselors I remembered myself at their age, and the parents who entrusted their children to me. I didn’t take the same precautions with those children as I do now, with my own. I suspected the same was true of these teenagers. But I was too busy with Ella’s transfer–lunchbox (check), bathing suit and towel (check), water bottle (check), sunblock and bugspray (check)—to give my worry much attention. The camp counselors were busy too, loading my daughter up in a 15-passenger van. They were taking the kids on a trip to the lake.

Driving away from the drop-off, the image of my tiny, tow-headed daughter, climbing into the camp van stayed with me. Arriving at my office, unlocking the door, arranging my desk to tackle my long list of to-do’s, my mind kept returning to my daughter in the van.

Then, a premonition overcame me; a feeling, a knowing. My mind pictured the tragedy—a van overturned with my daughter’s body inside it.

The urge to go and get her—to chase down that van, find my daughter, pull her into my arms and keep her with me for the rest of the day—swelled. Fear flooded my nervous system and I broke into a sweat.

Am I crazy? Or is this a sign? Will I regret this forever if I don’t go and get her? How could this possibly be true? I was suffering terribly and almost succumbed. My car keys were in my hand when I remembered my practice.

So I took my suffering to the mat and sat with it. This was a tough one because the fear was like violence within me. It was beating me up inside, clubbing my heart, contracting my lungs, scorching me with its heat from the inside out. It was almost unbearable. But I sat with it and breathed. I leaned into my suffering instead of running away from it, or running immediately to resolve it. And, like my anger previously, I eventually felt the urgency of my fear dissipate. The oxygen calmed my nerves and restored my reason. I was still afraid, but not overwhelmed. And in this new state I realized that I had to let Ella go…and keep letting her go…because her life and mine could not be ruled by fear.

Our suffering has much to teach us, and yet we do everything possible to avoid it or get rid of it. I am becoming much more aware of my suffering now and my power to sit with it. This, in turn, has led me to become more aware of the suffering of others. The faces of humanity rise in my mind as I sit on my mat. I hold each in my heart, just as I hold my own fragile self. Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, believes that the world would be a more peaceful and compassionate place if we all practiced meditation. As I stop to imagine this—a world that could learn from its own suffering and not be ruled by fear—I give thanks for the profound gifts of a simple practice.

Quiet

2005121700_ballerinaMy husband was the first to disturb Her. He loped around the house, snored in great huffs at night, captured me in conversation at the dinner table.  As my marriage unfolded, She sulked in the corner of my life, moody and listless, still catching snatches of time over a morning cup of coffee or after he had gone to bed.  She and I used to dance all the time, bodies pressed together in ecstasy, the feel of her made my mind explode with ideas, dreams, fantasy places.  I could go anywhere in her hush.

When my first child was pulled, wet and bloody, from the womb She looked on in horror.  After the mucus was sucked from his mouth and nose he screamed and She walked out. I’d look for her, late at night, as I woke every few hours to put the baby to my breast.  I’d listen for her in the wind of the trees as my husband and I pushed the stroller around the cul-de-sac. But the reality of my life kept her away.

My second child stayed in my womb as long as she could, refusing to come (as she still does) when the doctor called.  Perhaps she sensed the noise of my life and preferred to dance with her Quiet in the security of my womb.  So they put me to sleep, a mask over my nose and mouth, a needle in my spine, and I drifted away.  I dreamed I was with Quiet again, sitting on the porch as the sun went down, watching the sky turn orange, blush rose, blue, and then black.  We snacked on almond slivers, the crunch between my teeth the only sound breaking our reverie.  Slipping between the cool sheets of the bed, my legs kick out wide, glorifying in the freedom of all that space.

When I awoke, another mouth to feed lay swaddled in her crib beside my bed.  I leaned forward to catch a glimpse of baby girl, my stomach shrieking in protest.  Her eyes bobbed beneath her closed eyelids and the tiny holes in her nose widened with each breath.  She sucked on her lower lip as if chewing on a good dream.  I imagined she was dreaming of the Quiet she knew once too.  Filled with new love I whispered over her head, “Don’t worry, baby girl, you’ll find Her again one day.”

I lay back down to contemplate the noise of my now-crowded life.  I couldn’t ask for more, yet I wanted less.  I was fully alive, yet dead tired.

I would learn to dance with the riches of my new life.  I would come to treasure the cacophony of giggles that filled my house.  I would never live in regret.  But Quiet is my home, my peace, my muse.  I shall stalk Her like a madman.  I shall pursue Her like the one lost sheep.  I shall fret over Her like the mother whose baby has wandered away.  And I will find Her…as we all do…in the end.

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.