For The Someday Book

Archive for the ‘Deep Thoughts’ Category

On March 2, deadly tornadoes ripped through our community. In the immediate aftermath, experts and volunteers and resources poured in from across the country. Now, two months later, we have established a long term recovery team with eight active committees in charge of everything from construction and volunteer management to spiritual and emotional care. Local leaders, including me, have come forward to lead the organization for the next 18-24 months. The outside experts and leaders are on their way out. FEMA left town on Friday. In the last few weeks I have heard these disaster responders, both from the government and religious organizations, repeatedly use the phrase “own your own disaster.” It’s time, they say, for the community to own its own disaster, and take charge of their own recovery.

Owning our own disaster is not an easy process. In the first few days, it was all about having survived, and helping neighbors survive. As the days turned into weeks, it was all about getting help. Everyone was eagerly awaiting aid from others—from insurance, from FEMA, from the Red Cross, from family or churches or other organizations. People seemed to believe that these groups would save them from their distress, that money and resources would pour in, and that these aid groups would restore them to wholeness.

However, insurance has deductibles. FEMA only gives away money to those without insurance; others must take out low-interest loans, which must be paid back. Even voluntary organizations reserve their dollars and donations for those with no other resources of their own. The realization that no one was going to fix it was met with anger, frustration and grief, as we realized that the much of the burden and cost of the disaster would still rest with those who had already lost so much.

As the weeks have passed, the emotions have tempered and the community has come together to move forward. It is our community, after all. We should be the ones in charge of rebuilding it. The recovery will take many months, and those outside volunteers and experts need to return to their lives and their homes. They cannot bear the cost of rebuilding our community for us. The disaster represents much hardship, but also much opportunity—the chance to remake things better than they were before. As we learn to own our own disaster, we take responsibility for the future of our own community.

I can’t help but reflect that I have seen this pattern before, many times, as I have walked with families through their own personal disasters. A tragedy, a diagnosis, an accident, a life-changing mistake—there is always an initial rush of aid, followed by the disappointing realization that no one can fix this for you, that only you and God can put your own life back together again. The grief, the anger, the frustration are all too familiar. Like the survivors of the tornado, sometimes it’s hard to realize that even though the disaster occurred through no fault of your own, the responsibility for healing and rebuilding still lies with you, because it’s your life. Sometimes, when we find ourselves in disasters of our own making, we still want someone else to step in and rescue us.

Yet in order to heal and be restored to wholeness, we all have to learn to own our own disasters. It may not be fair, but little in life is. We can’t heal unless we take responsibility for our own healing, and that requires for taking responsibility for our own disaster, even if it came about through no fault of our own.

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This Sunday was part of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and I wanted to be sure to attend a service that marked the occasion. I decided to worship on Sunday morning at a well-respected African-American megachurch that has a satellite campus in our town. I have developed a nice collegial relationship with one of the pastors there, and the worship and preaching are always stellar.

This time, however, the transcendent moment came from a choir anthem, sung by a magnificent choir that was at least 75 voices strong. The anthem was called “Manifest.” Although online sources credit T.D. Jakes, whose church choir made a famous recording of it, the piece was written by Jonathan Nelson and John Paul McGee. The version by Jakes’ The Potter’s House Choir is below (there is preaching at the beginning, skip ahead to 2:25 to hear the music), but you can listen to Nelson’s more mellow recording here. The rendition I heard was far more free-form, as the soloist and choir leader led each other and followed the movement of the Spirit as they repeated certain refrains, took the crowd to a crescendo and let each section of the anthem go on as long as it needed to.

I wavered for the first two verses about whether I would be drawn into the song or not.

Pregnant possibilities now birth anew,
travailing to obtain it for it must come to pass.
I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit
to become what God’s designed me to be.
Your future, your promises shall be fulfilled,
yes, you shall obtain it for it must come to pass.

Creeping in the background, I could see the images of the prosperity gospel, which I think is a twisted, evil distortion of the gospel of sacrifice and service. However, I loved the idea of pregnant possibilities, and the call to become everything God has designed us to be. In the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and death, I remembered something I heard about the power and importance of the black church. (There’s probably a famous quote to this effect from a famous preacher, but I don’t remember it.) All week long, out in the world, black people are despised and filled with the lie that they are worthless. On Sunday morning, the church tells them the real truth: that they are holy and whole and loved and powerful. Worship gives the community strength and healing to face the world knowing the truth of who they are. I decided to go with this message, and let myself be moved by the power of the song. In the end, “moved” doesn’t even begin to describe my experience.

The choir began repeating the same refrain: “I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit/to become what God’s designed me to be.” They built it up to a crescendo, and a young woman took the microphone and began to sing out above them, increasing the intensity. Together, she and the choir were not simply singing a song anymore—their words were acting like the Word, the Word that calls worlds into being, the Word whose utterances are entities in themselves, the Word whose voice is power and light and hope incarnate. As they sang “I decree it, declare it,” I could see the bodies and souls of the choir members taking on the design that God had for each of them, becoming wholly a vehicle of God’s praise. As we in the congregation stood and joined them, their decree and declaration took hold of us as well, calling down the Spirit to shape us into God’s design for our lives, so that we too could become vessels of God’s glory.

The culminating moment came when the choir began to repeat the title word: “manifest.” Over and over, with power and might, with chords and discords, with prayer and supplication they sang out: “Manifest!” At first, it was a pleading prayer to the Holy One, urging the Divine to come into our midst, to manifest among us. I recalled the Isaiah passage from the first Sunday of Advent: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1) With the voices, I ached for God to manifest in our presence, a theophany. Their pleading grew bolder, and it was like they were issuing a command to the Almighty’s own self. Like a petulant child: “Get down here right now! Manifest!”

As the intensity grew, something in me shifted, and I realized it was a command—but not to the Almighty. The anthem was a command to ourselves. Manifest! Manifest God! Right here, right now. Manifest God in your life. Manifest God in your words and your deeds. Manifest God in your own body. Get rid of all that baggage and those useless pursuits. Become what God has designed you to be. Manifest!

The soloist continued, but her words were lost on me. All I heard was the choir proclaiming the Word: Manifest! The song reached its climax and began to wind down, turning quiet and introspective in the repeated refrain: “become what God designed you to be.” It was then that I realized that the song was itself a manifestation. By their song, the choir had actually made manifest the presence of the Spirit in our midst. Then they had manifest that Spirit in us, sweeping the congregation into the Spirit’s work. We heard the truth that we are loved by God, and called by God to love others. The power of the music became the power of God. The Word was again made flesh, manifest in that hour of worship in voices and bodies lifted in praise and turned toward what God designed us to be. Thanks be to God.

I awoke this morning sensing that God was very near. More accurately, realizing that my heart, mind and spirit had been broken open to feel God’s presence. I just knew that, if I could stay open, God would come very near. I felt as if my spirit was waking up after a long sleep. St. Patrick’s Breastplate prayer came to me:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation

After taking B to school, I went to a nearby park to take a walk. Instead of my normal alt-folk-rock Pandora mix, a classical station appeared. I realized that wordlessness suited my prayerful mood, and set out walking. What happened next felt like magic, a mystical revelation of God’s presence.

The music was in 3/4 time, and my feet slipped into a waltzing pattern. I couldn’t help it—it felt like I was dancing along the path instead of just walking. I first noticed it as I came upon the duck pond. Over the music in my earbuds, I could hear the quacking and squawking—and they seemed perfectly attuned to the pulsing staccato of the symphony. As the wind blew through the trees, I began to imagine that nature’s own movements had been choreographed to the music in my ears. Through a short line of trees, the thickness of the symphony dwindled at the same moment I stepped into a wide, open meadow. The chatter of the symphony calmed, as did the ducks. The violins played a simple melody, clear and smooth, as a solitary bird flew overhead, from one end of the meadow to the other. I waltzed across the meadow entranced, open to the simple melody, to the space and to the spirit.

The symphony grew thicker and more invitational, and I approached a grove of trees. I imagined them welcoming me into their fellowship, out of the solitude and emptiness of the open meadow and into a space of warmth and companionship. Together we frolicked with the lilting of the music, and I felt like I was a guest at a lovely party. I found myself triple-timing the waltz steps, and my arms followed the arc of the music.

Slowly, the music turned heavier, as the grove of trees also became more dense. I felt the weightiness of journey, of struggle, of pilgrimage. I contemplated the way our life’s journeys twist and turn, grow thick and thin. Sometimes we are surrounded by friends, sometimes we are alone. I kept walking in time with the music. The tension and discord grew heavier, then suddenly exploded into fullness and light, beaming with deep radiance.

I felt my Spirit coming alive. God did not choreograph the movements of the trees and the birds to the movement of my feet, like Disney’s Fantasia, but God opened me again to the music of the world, to the ability to pay attention to all that was happening around me.

I finally looked to see what the piece was. It was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which is called “Resurrection.”

These are the things for which sabbatical was made. Long walks, a spirit of prayer, attentive listening. For resurrection. Thanks be to God.

(Below is the entire symphony. I was listening, I suspect, to the second movement, which begins around minute 24. I discovered, in researching the piece when I returned home, that the second movement is based on a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance that preceded the waltz. When I was in a folk dance group in college, the Ländler was one of my favorite dances. No wonder my feet stepped in time. Zillertaler Ländler was always my favorite.)

But when our emphasis on using time displaces our awareness of time as gift, we find that we are not so much using time as permitting time to use us… We forget how to luxuriate in time that is not filled with tasks. We delude ourselves into believing that if we can just get everything done, if we can only tie up all the loose ends, if we can even once get ahead of the crush, we will prove our worth and establish ourselves in safety. (Receiving the Day, by Dorothy C. Bass, pp. 2-3)

What my Google Calendar usually looks like.

J made fun of me the other day, when he discovered me making a to-do list. “You’re on sabbatical,” he guffawed, “and you’re still making lists!” In my own defense, I have officially stopped using a calendar during sabbatical. And the list was mostly about preparations for B’s birthday party and follow-ups to Christmas (like thank you notes and such). But it also included my to-do list for sabbatical-related tasks for the day: write that review, finish this book, write the other blog post, make bread, shop for trip.

In reality, I just didn’t know how to live without a list. I have a special note pad for that purpose at work, updated weekly (or more, if it’s particularly full). I make a home list every weekend that combines all the household tasks that need doing (laundry, dishes, vacuuming) and all the “just-for-me” things I want to accomplish (paint toenails, finish book, exercise). The lists offer a sense of control over time and its use, and a delightful reward as each task is accomplished and crossed out.

For the first week of my sabbatical time at home, I felt each day like the hours were too fleeting, that I hadn’t had enough time to do what I’d hoped, that I needed more time to get time to relax, that I wasn’t able to calm my mind and heart enough to feel like I was on sabbatical. Even though I was accomplishing most of what was on my list every day, I never felt any sense of spaciousness for the Spirit. “Pray” just doesn’t work as a task on a list.

I turned to Dorothy Bass’ book, hoping it would steer me into Sabbath space. In the opening chapter, she talks about the danger of datebooks and to-do lists.

The flat pages of a datebook can become a template not simply for organizing time but for visualizing what time is: a sequence of little boxes, each waiting to be filled. As the owner of this time, I imagine, my role is to look down on these boxes from above and determine what goes where. (1-2)

I love this image. For me, it has been like the act of writing and completing to-do lists is written into my body.

That is exactly how I have been treating time, even on sabbatical. I had so many hours between dropping B off at school and picking him up, and I was going to accomplish a certain number of things appropriate to the time allotted. I was seeing sabbatical as time to undertake a different series of tasks. They were tasks of choice and pleasure, like reading and writing and praying and exercising, but tasks nonetheless. I had a limited number of hours and weeks to accomplish them. Consequently, I was frustrated whenever anything took longer than expected, or when family life encroached on “me time,” or because sabbatical time didn’t feel any more special than regular time.

Finally, yesterday, I tossed to to-do list. I can already feel a difference in my spirit, and my attentiveness to the Spirit. While I still have things I want to do, I am no longer driven by the desire to complete them. Instead, I am starting to see those items as things I want to attend to, to give focus and energy to in the course of this day. It’s not about a task that needs completion, but about paying attention to certain things that will give meaning to the gift of this time I have been given. The value and meaning of a given day does not come from what I am able to accomplish in it—the value of a given day comes from God, and its meaning is found in the moments of life it holds, no matter what does or does not get completed.

This is the true purpose of Sabbath, whether a day or a series of weeks on sabbatical—to rediscover the gift of time, to let go of trying to “earn the air we breathe,” (Bass, 3) to know God’s love for us does not depend on how much we accomplish, and to receive each day as it comes. It is a lesson I am still learning, and one that I pray will continue to give shape to this sabbatical time and, more importantly, to the time beyond sabbatical. The to-do lists will return of necessity, but I can work to prevent them from wielding the power of judgment over the value of a day, or the value of me.

The first stop on my sabbatical journey was my hometown, Virginia Beach, where I spent the first 17 years of my life, where my parents and J’s mother and our closest friends still reside. My sister, brother-in-law, nieces, and all my cousins, aunts, uncles and grandmother are all close by as well. As a child, we always gathered for big family celebrations at every holiday.

Since I became a pastor, I’ve missed all the holidays, and all those gatherings. Christmas and Easter (and the school breaks that accompany them) are the busiest times of my year, and the times that my presence here at church is most important. Sometimes it’s possible to slip away for Thanksgiving, but only if we’re back on Saturday—and Virginia Beach is more than 650 miles away, too far to go for just a two-day trip.

Once or twice, before B was born, J and I tried to travel home on Christmas Day, after Christmas Eve duties were done. The last time we tried it was  nine years ago, when we both scheduled 6:00 a.m. flights on Christmas Day (from separate cities across the country, but that’s another story). I made it to Virginia by noon, having slept for two hours in my office between the end of the midnight service and a 4:00 a.m. trip to the airport.  J’s flight hit a computer glitch, and he arrived at 1:30 a.m. the day after Christmas, having spent all of Christmas Day alone in the Cincinnati airport. We were both exhausted and miserable, and it took days to recover and begin to enjoy ourselves. We didn’t ever want to go through that  again, much less risk putting a child through it, so we haven’t been home for a holiday since.

This year, however, my sabbatical made all the difference, and we decided to give it a try. Christmas Day was a Sunday, so there was no talk of departing for the two-day drive any sooner than December 26. We had hoped to make it out before dawn, but J was sick and I was too exhausted from all the Christmas services. We straggled into his mother’s house on the evening of the 27th. After dinner, I felt this strange compulsion. I couldn’t wait any longer—I just wanted to get home, to my parent’s house, the house where I was raised and celebrated every Christmas until I was 23 and left for seminary. Even after a two-day, 13-hour drive, even through a raging storm of wind and hail, I piled B into the car and headed five more miles across town.

Baby Jesus in a Walnut Shell

I felt the tears creeping into the corners of my eyes as soon as I walked in the door, but it was the Christmas tree that really brought on the  joy at being home, and the sense of loss after years of absence. The tree is covered with memories: the angel my best friend gave me in seventh grade; the Brillo-pad bird’s nest I made in art class when I was eight; the baby Jesus in a walnut shell from fifth grade Sunday School; the pair of little girl carolers representing my sister and I; the Snoopy with reindeer antlers that has hung on the bottom branches of my parents’ tree since before I was born.

My son, celebrating his fifth Christmas, had never seen any of these things that meant so much to me, and it felt like such an gift to introduce him to the Christmas things from my childhood. B touched the various ornaments I made when I was not much older than he was, and it was as if he had a tactile, real connection to me as a child. He marveled to think that I made things in school and Sunday school just like he does. And Snoopy with reindeer antlers made him giggle with glee, just like I always do.

This is as close as I could find to my parents' Snoopy with antlers. Theirs is an ornament (not on a stick), and is soft instead of plastic. Still, the antlers, absence of ears and adorable little tongue are a perfect match.

The tree was also an aching reminder of how much I’d missed all these years. “Mom, you have a fake tree? You always have a real tree!” “We’ve had this one for five years, and we’re about ready to replace it.” “Dad, where is the cuckoo clock ornament? It always goes right here up top.” “Oh, that’s been gone for a long time—ten years or so. Probably broke or something.” I realized I am now a stranger to my family’s Christmas habits.

All over the house, my mother had carefully arranged nativity sets. When I was growing up, we never had a nativity set. I finally purchased one for my mother at an art show about 15 years ago. Now she has them all over the house, a dozen or more. She had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to take B on a tour of each one. “Mom, when did you get all these? I’ve never seen these before.” “Ever since you gave me that first one, I loved it so much I began collecting a new one every year since.” “How did I not know this?” “Because you never come home.” 

Instead of the usual defensiveness—“You know I can’t come home. I’m a pastor. I have to work on Christmas.”—I was overcome by what I had missed. There was a moment of grief for all the holiday memories that we do not share, all the family gatherings that did not include me. Even this year, all the family gatherings had already passed by the time we arrived. There was a pain in my heart for the ways that B will never know those kind of big family celebrations, though we often have one set of grandparents or another visit us.

Even more, I felt a sadness and an appreciation for what my family has given up in order for me to live into my pastoral vocation. My parents (and J’s) will never have all their children and grandchildren at home for Christmas, to gather together around the tree of memories.

I love being a pastor. I love spending every Christmas and Easter so thoroughly immersed in the work of leading worship that I cannot get away. The sacrifice feels small when compared with the joy of my vocation—I am absent from my family to be present to the church. I wonder, though, about the rest of my family, who have the absence without the presence to something else.

Going home for Christmas felt bittersweet. It was such a blessing to have a rare chance to be with family for the holidays, and to introduce B to Christmas traditions from home. It was also a reminder of all that we miss every other year.

I am discovering that sabbatical itself is a glimpse of the road not taken. This time apart from pastoral responsibilities shows me what life might have been like without this unique vocation of pastoral ministry. I am glad of my chosen road, and I have no regrets or desire to change paths. Yet there is a painful poignancy to discovering another way of life, a different rhythm, a life not lived. There would be other sorrows and hardships on that road, too, but there would also have been other joys.

After nearly 11 years in ministry, I am having my first sabbatical. I am away from my church and ministry responsibilities from the day after Christmas until the beginning of Lent. My plans are quiet and simple: travels to Virginia to see family at the holidays; time at home to read, write and reflect; travels to the Holy Land with the Macedonian Ministries program; followed by a little more time at home. This blog will be home to my written reflections on sabbatical, including a travel journal, reflections on ministry, personal spiritual reflections, and (hopefully lots of) book reviews.

I am already 10 days into sabbatical, and this is the first opportunity I have had for writing. Traveling to visit family was wonderful, but it did not offer the kind of space and peace I am craving. That is only now just beginning.

This has me reflecting on the difference between chronos time and kairos time. Wikipedia says describes the difference succinctly:

The ancient Greeks had two words for time, chronos and kairos. While the former refers to chronological or sequential time, the latter signifies a time in between, a moment of indeterminate time in which something special happens. What the special something is depends on who is using the word. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative nature.

Chronos looks like this...

or this...

or this.

Kairos is more like this. A moment when the clouds roll back and God's light shines through.

Wikipedia goes on to describe its use in Christianity as “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” We don’t detect the difference in English translation, but kairos appears regularly in the New Testament. It’s usually translated simply as “time,” but sometimes it is “due time” or “opportune time” or “season.” Jesus frequently uses kairos instead of chronos in his apocalyptic teachings and in the parables. I always remember Mark 1:15 when I think of kairos. Jesus emerges from his baptism to go into the wilderness. He returns from 40 days apart to announce his mission: “The time (kairos) is near, the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” It’s one of my favorite verses in all the gospel, because it indicates that the time and place of God’s realm are not far away (a linear distance, off into the future). God’s realm is at hand, where we can reach out and touch it. God’s realm is now, and we can glimpse it in this moment if we are willing to set aside the relentless march of chronos time and simply be present to kairos.

It is my prayer that this sabbatical will more closely attune me to kairos time. The demands of chronos time keep me in constant motion most days. One of the things I have already learned on this sabbatical is how many of those demands are not related to my church and ministry responsibilities. Our week in Virginia was piled high with commitments and visits to family and old friends. Nearby friends that I rarely have time to see are all hoping for a get-together during sabbatical. I still have to get up every morning, and share the responsibility with J for getting breakfast for B, driving him to school and picking him up, feeding him supper and putting him to bed. In the last week, we have had a broken toilet, burned out exterior light, broken ceiling fan and malfunctioning carbon monoxide detector, all of which required a trip to the hardware store and time to repair.  There have been kairos moments in all those times so far, but chronos time still governs, even on sabbatical.

I think my mental image of sabbatical was more like Jesus in the wilderness: wandering and praying, not even thinking about his next meal, much less dealing with broken toilets. But Jesus didn’t have indoor plumbing, or even a house, much less an intense and talkative preschooler.

Then again, when Jesus returned from the wilderness, he proclaimed that kairos time was near, that the place of God was right at hand. He did not call people into the wilderness to follow him. Instead, he talked about kairos time in stories about vineyards and fig trees and harvests–the things of earth and daily labor. There is hope yet.

Dear God, the chronos time of my sabbatical seems so fleeting and full of interruptions and distractions—even though there is still so much time left. Break through to me in kairos time, O God. I would repent and believe in the Gospel. Forgive me for letting the busyness take over and putting time with you last on my list. Quiet my rushing around and restlessness.  Set free my mind and attune me to your presence in all things, both sacred and mundane. Reveal the nearness of your time, reach my hand to touch your kingdom. And, while you’re at it, please keep more dumb stuff at the house from breaking. Thank you. Amen.

B and I made our own Advent wreath this year, to sit on the kitchen table. The kitchen table is regularly the dumping ground for junk mail, school artwork, receipts, stray gloves and not-yet-put-away purchases. Its proximity to the back door makes it everyone’s first stop and first view upon entering the house. Since the wreath has taken central place, though, it has seemed easier and more important to keep the table clear of unnecessary junk. It’s amazingly refreshing to my spirit to enter the house and see the Advent wreath, rather than a pile of mess that needs to be put away.

Last week, we lit the first candle and I talked with B about hope. Tonight, we lit the second candle and talked about peace. Even as we talked about the meaning of peace—ending war, getting along with friends, making sure everyone has enough—we could see our hope candle struggling to stay lit.  Smoke was pouring from it, but the flame was barely an ember on the wick. Watching the light struggle to survive, I contemplated how hard it often is for hope itself to stay strong against the darkness.

I reached for my camera to capture a picture. Before I could get the lens cap off, the candle suddenly exploded into a full flame of light, bigger and brighter than the peace candle next to it. Wax was pouring down the side of the candle, spilling over the holder. The flame had been dampened by all the old wax around the wick, unable to catch enough air to fully shine. Letting go of the junk released the light of hope again.

It was just like my kitchen table. Removing the junk to focus on the Advent wreath set me free to focus on the hope and peace of the season.

Even more, it is just like my soul. Hope gets stifled by all sorts of junk—old hurts, built-up anxieties, piled-on worries, and overwhelming circumstances that make us feel like we just can’t get any air. Yet the tiniest flame of hope, even the one that looks like it’s too small to survive, can be enough to throw off all that mess and explode into light.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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