Keeping Watch, Bearing Witness

This is the final reflection of the Keep Watch With Me Lenten Reader for Peacemakers

We have been watching and witnessing together. We have read one another’s stories of hurt and hope, of suffering and salvation. We have practiced and prayed together, seeking love and light in the wandering of Lent.

On Easter, many of us read the John 20 narrative of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene’s story. Hers is the story of recognition that turns from Lent to Easter, from the quiet darkness of Saturday to the blaze of fire and light of resurrection Sunday, from death to life.

Mary keeps watch at the tomb, waiting and remaining in the face of death.

We keep watch.

We keep watch in the midst of grief and the darkness before the dawn.

We keep watch when we have no hope, we when do not understand.

We keep watch with questions, with doubt, with our whole selves.

We keep watch when others have given up, when it feels like there is nothing to watch for.

Mary bears witness, telling of the impossible and unexpected Life she has encountered.

We bear witness.

We bear witness to Christ present, alive, surprising.

We bear witness as we recognize God and are recognized by God.

We bear witness to the resistance of death, despair, and systemic violence.

We bear witness in our communities, that we might become a new kind of community.

We are invited with Mary, with all saints and people of goodwill, to bear witness to the mind-bending good news that Hope was in the graveyard, that Peace is on the move. The empire lost and the resistance is strong. Love is rallying us to the cause of creation, life, growth and movement.

So, let us go forth into our lives and work and the world, carrying the wisdom we have learned together in our watch. Let us go with the Light, bearing witness in our peacemaking, in our spiritual practices, and in our stories.

This Is My Body

Have I got a recommendation for y’all.
A few weeks ago I was given the opportunity to read an upcoming book from Upper Room Books, This Is My Body: Embracing The Messiness of Faith and Motherhood by Hannah E. Shanks.
Oh my goodness. That’s only all I ever seem to talk about.
In her book, Big Magic, Liz Gilbert shares her theory on Creativity, who comes along and taps you on the shoulder with an idea. If you won’t or can’t give life to the idea, Creativity moves along to another soul who is willing or able to make the Creative Idea come into the world. When I read This Is My Body, I thought of this theory immediately, as Hannah Shanks has put to the page so many of the prayers and conversations my mama friends and I have been having. This Is My Body is the absolute book of my heart, and of so many other mama/theologian hearts. It’s the story of my past two and a half years, of so much of coming into motherhood. It’s a book as universal and exceptional as the experience of motherhood itself.
Hannah is a brave theologian. She wades into nitty-gritty, concrete, gross and glorious embodiment. Incarnational theology, ironically, is so often approached as an abstraction. But grounded in the minutia of physical changes in pregnancy and birth, this Christology can’t help but keep its skin and blood, its placenta and colostrum and sweat and mucus. This courage reminds me to muster my own, to remember that I, too–my life and motherhood and ministry and theological reflection–I am united with Jesus in all my bodiliness. Her theology roams beyond the initial topic of motherhood, dealing with fundamental feminist questions of belonging and equality, asking, “How, in a religion where God incarnate was physically borne, supported, and raised by a woman, did we come to a place where women were seen as secondary to men in carrying the gospel?”
And Hannah is a brave mama. She names conflicting emotions and the gut-wrenching mind/body connection of pregnancy pains and fears, postpartum struggles, and the mind-numbing exhaustion of life with a newborn. This courage reminds me that I, too, felt those things and hid them, worried about my solitude in my worry and ambivalence. The connections between pregnancy and postpartum with prayer practice and faith also connected with my experience. To be sure, breastfeeding all night felt like a vigil of hours, but that prayer was offered with unapologetic tiredness and sometimes, frustration. Hannah describes with so much grace and honesty how all of these feelings and experiences are bound up together.
Reading this, I found myself thrown into body memories, brought to tears and belly aches in recollection of the body immediacy of pregnancy, of labor and delivery, of nursing. My body was just so loud to me then, so demanding and strong. What’s more, as I read, I suddenly became aware of what I no longer know about God, aware of insights about Eucharist, even about myself and my son that are no longer known and lived in my flesh. That knowledge of “this is my body,” so acute, so sacred and earthy and bloody, has faded. I knew because my body knew. Now, “this is my body” means something else. The book left me with an invitation to discern what this life stage and embodiment, so different that the last, might have to teach me about God with us.
Thoughtful of her audience, Hannah Shanks acknowledges her social location and particularity as a cisgendered and reproductively able-bodied woman. She acknowledges the limits of her story. But a story told well, in its particularity, is a story that points beyond its teller to connect with many. She writes, “The parts of myself that I don’t want to reconcile aren’t left out of God’s radical work…Turns out, being made one with Christ means being made one with ourselves, too.” This good, hard news of grace and bodiliness and integration into God is good, hard news for us all, not just for the mamas. This book casts a vision for all of us to have space to say, “This is my body.”
The book will be out from Upper Room in May (preorder here) and I’ll be clamoring about it on facebook and instagram with links to buy. Get it for yourselves, for baby shower gifts, for your midwife, for anyone who likes to talk about bodies. There’s even a discussion guide in the back if you decide to go wild and make it a book club. Hmm… that’s a thought.

Having Kids and Selling Out

This week I’ve been listening to “How to Survive the End of the World,” a podcast by Autumn Brown and adrienne maree brown. It’s fantastic. Check it out.

In listening to their conversations, particularly about child- birthing and loss and raising, I realized that I’ve been struggling with my identity as a mom and someone who cares about and works for justice in the world.

Having S. corresponded with a shift in my work and life. I was starting seminary with a hefty commute, my partner’s organizing job was getting way more demanding, and a baby adds a new level of financial and emotional need. I had finished my time at Vanderbilt, where opportunities to plug into social movements abound, and where, as a student, I had the flexibility to give time and attention to those movements.

The emotionally intensive facilitation work I really got into before and during pregnancy went to the back burner. For the most part, we can only afford to have childcare for hours during which we are working or at school, for me).

Social movement spaces aren’t always conducive to young families — it’s a lot of long days and evening meetings for a baby or toddler — and I regularly choose consistent nap time and slow evenings and dinners for my son over, well, just about any other option. Especially at the beginning, his sleeping and eating was so easily throw off track, and a bad afternoon nap meant lots of night waking, lots of exhaustion.

But is that just a list of excuses? Have I sold out?

There’s obviously part of me that thinks so, or I wouldn’t be writing this. But Autumn and adrienne have been reminding me that the small stabilities and consistencies for my kid are also a form of movement work. I chose the part time hourly cubicle job that pays the bills and frees up my heart and mind, so I can replenish those emotional resources to respond to a toddler with patience and re-read that bell hooks picture book 17 times. That is the work of dismantling the patriarchy, for him and also in myself.

I’ve internalized the devaluation of (traditionally women’s) labor that focuses on the home and child, even within a framework that explicitly values the feminized and vulnerable, that claims liberation for folks to be able to do exactly this work: raise a child with peace and connection, take time to tend emotional intelligence and body and family.

The movement work will go on. There will still be groups to facilitate. There will be books to write. There will be gardens to plant and protests to join and classes to teach and hospital visits to make — all those works I have loved to do and will love to do again. Not now doesn’t mean never.

And now I can choose to remember and recenter the truth that this little guy — and the small moments like this morning, drawing circles and singing “peace like a river” while putting on his shoes — he is my daily work of justice and freedom.

EEK!

In my graduate studies and practice as a minister, I teach spiritual practices that connect the Christian tradition of scripture, prayer, and worship to emotional intelligence, embodiment, and mindfulness. As a mom, I hope to ground my young son’s faith in this as well.

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Eek! Said Amy by L.J. Zimmerman and Charles Long is one of the best tools I have found for this. The story explores body and emotions with a boy named Devon and Amy, his amygdala. They’re a great team, most of the time, but Amy sometimes gets in “red alert!” and Devon struggles with very big fear at some small things like a little bug, social anxiety, or stepping on a sidewalk crack. These worries are relatable for children, and so are the hopeful practices offered: a talk with mom, a simple breathing meditation, and some Bible verses to memorize and remember when things are scary.

I read this with my son who’s 20 months old, and while it’s aimed at older children, he was engaged with the book. He requested, “Amy?” “Emotions?” long after we put the book away. My five year old nephew connected more deeply, wondering if he has an amygdala, too, and practicing deep breaths full of God’s love along with Devon. This is a book to grow into, with layers of emotional intelligence, body awareness, and prayer for different developmental stages.

Also, it’s funny. The pictures and dialogue are clever, and I didn’t hate reading it five times in a row for a toddler. And let’s be real, mamas — that matters, too.

You can order Eek! Said Amy on Amazon or from Abingdon Press this week! I will definitely be buying a few copies for friends and family, and keep on revisiting it with my child. With the terrible twos around the corner, we can probably both use some deep breaths of God’s love and a gentle reminder that God can help us be brave through big emotions.

 

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

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Preached at Church of the Ascension in Knoxville, Tennessee

This week as I read and studied, preparing to be with you today on theological education Sunday, I thought a lot about a particular moment in my discernment process. The path to ordination is a long one, full of prayerful meetings and questions and conversations that help make a community decision about a call. In the fall of 2015, my husband, Austin, and I were having a particularly busy and full season of life. We were each writing a master’s thesis, taking graduate classes and working three jobs between us. We had been invited to and were nervously anticipating the Commission on Ministry Retreat, where Brett and Bart, Bishop George, and other kind and wise folks in the diocese would talk with us both and make a decision of whether I’d be moved forward as a postulant. And to top it off, I had that thrilling and terrifying inkling I was pregnant. (I was)

But in those three weeks before meeting with the commission, and week before I could get results from a pregnancy test, amidst the writing and editing and studying, distracted and pulled in all directions by my community, work, family, call–I ended up going on my first silent retreat. To be perfectly honest? I kind of hated it. It was hard. It was just so quiet. I had this huge project I was supposed to be working on, and two huge life circumstances unfolding, and I was keeping my lips zipped, working puzzles and walking in the woods with the passionist nuns.

Of course, you know, this was exactly what I needed. The pause in busyness took some adjusting, but after a while peace overtook me. I came back from the woods clear-headed, well-rested, and ready to do the work at hand.

Our gospel reading today is about this very thing, the dance between work, community, and that quiet space with God.

We hear today from the gospel of Mark, the most action-packed of the four gospels. This is the story for jumping in and getting going. The miracles described in Mark, these quick snapshots of divinely empowered, radical actions, show us that Jesus’ ministry is all about God’s kingdom come. Mark is not alone in its attention to the Kingdom of God. But while Matthew and Luke focus more on parables and illustrations and teaching of what the kingdom of God is like, Mark has more doing than talking, more showing than telling what God’s kingdom is about. The writer of this gospel uses words like “quickly” and “immediately,” moving from one scene cut straight to the next. It’s the comic book version of the gospels. More than dialogue and teaching, focused on Jesus’ dramatic, miraculous acts—healing and feeding and casting out demons. Mark shows us Jesus, man of action, challenging and confronting and healing. Christ is on the move!

But when we wonder about the work of “thy kingdom come,” we can remember that it comes “on earth.” Those almost otherworldly miracles are balanced out by the Mark’s ordinary earthiness.  Mark writes about local politics. Mark writes about squabbles between friends, about sickness and health, and road trips, and snooty church people, and mothers in law. It is a book full of ordinary details that put Jesus in his context. And like all truly good stories, the particularity of this gospel connects, somehow, to us in a universal way. This gospel begs us to put ourselves into the story.

Last week we read that Jesus brought healing to the man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue, and his fame began to spread around the area. That healing leads us into the scene today. Jesus and his friends head to Simon’s house, a home base, where there is both rest and need for work. The matriarch is sick and needs help. That night Jesus is back to work in the larger community, healing sickness and rebuking demons. And then, the next morning, before the sunrise, he disappeared alone to pray and be, before he and his friends set out on their mission in Galilee.  Mark shows us a 24 hour birds eye view of Jesus’ life and work: God in Christ is at the synagogue, home, community, in the wilderness, and on the road. We see God at work in crowds, family, community, and the individual. His body, attention, and spirit shift from one focus to the next, fluid through these ten verses.

All that movement, trying to follow with our eyes, then our hearts and whole selves, reminds me of dancing. But not professional dancing, not the pros on tv. It reminds me of the kind of wholehearted, attentive, and thoroughly amateur contra dancing I’ve seen at community centers. Contra dancing is a form of dancing that originated in Western Europe in the 1700’s. It’s a group and partner dance, more fluid and circular than a square dance, and led by a “caller” who gives directions for the steps and movement of the group. My dad, sister, and I went once, years ago, to a contra dance in an old school gym in Chattanooga. It was stunning and confusing and graceful and fast. The dancers move their limbs and rotate, change partners, and spin in circles, the small one with their partner, and the larger shape of the whole room in motion. We watched for a long time before joining in, and it was a long time still before we began to get the hang of the thing.

When we see this action-packed, miracle working Jesus, turning this way and that, working and moving, teaching and healing, and remember that as disciples we are called to be part of this, too, we wonder how this story fits with the work that lies ahead of us. We know the church is God’s body in the world. We are meant to be the sign of hope, the enactment of incarnation and resurrection, the doers of justice and lovers of mercy. The psalm today tells us what’s entailed in this enormous call to participate in the kingdom: the work of God is building up Jerusalem, gathering outcasts, healing the brokenhearted, and lifting up the downtrodden.  When we wonder how it fits with our lives and work we might feel exhilarated, hopeful, or maybe confused, overwhelmed. How can we live into our call and join in this dance of mission, when there is just so much on the to-do list this week?

But the good, good news of today’s gospel reading is that the powerful kingdom of God at hand and the regular old to-do list aren’t as far apart as they seem. The snapshot of Jesus’ day reminds us that it is good and right to tend to first things first. We have to rest and pray and get centered for the day’s work. We have to take care of our homes and families. We have to tend the nearest communities. The whole city gathered outside of Simon’s house, waiting for the Healer to come. The whole city of Knoxville is there, waiting for the church to do her work. But we pause, rest, nurture, prioritize. We care for our community, our home base, in time of transition or need. And we do this not for the sake of the community, for the sake of the church itself. One pair of contra dancers refusing to move, turn, and exchange for a new hand is a boring and lonely dance indeed. As the late archbishop William Temple noted, “ “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” The kingdom of God is in the meal planning and the carpools, the errands and banking and newsletters. The kingdom of God is in the vestry meeting  and the Bible study, growing and building in and among us, so that when the right moment comes, we can turn and swing out and offer a ready hand to others.

Best of all, the proclamation of Isaiah reassures us that this work really isn’t ours. After all, we will grow tired and weary. The kingdom is God’s. And as we seek to be a part of that, living members of God, we will be human and limited. We must love our families and take care of the first things first. We practice tenderness to ourselves, through the spiritual disciplines to sustain this work and remain open to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. We must not grow tired of doing good, but continue, in ways large and small, to building up the community, gathering outcasts, healing the brokenhearted, and lifting up the downtrodden.

    Today I want to leave with you a prayer given at the funeral of Fr. Oscar Romero, composed by Fr. Ken Utener. Oscar A. Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador was assassinated while celebrating Mass for his life of prophetic witness and commitment to justice in El Salvador. This prayer honors his life, and reminds us of our own small work to do: at home, at church, in the city and the world.

—-

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent  enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

 

MLK Monday

Good morning! This is a real quick one, because my organizer husband is due on Jefferson St. in Nashville in an hour, representing his work on housing and transit at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day events and march, and I’ve got to get this toddler dressed and bundled up and down there as well.

I wanted to share again this resource I developed last year for families and churches to talk with children about Civil Rights, Martin Luther King Jr., and why we march today. Talk to your kids! It’s more important than ever for us to cultivate tools and intelligence around racial equality. Have more hope for their capacity to build a better world, than  fear for them in the one we’ve got. If you have questions or want reflect back on your experience today, comments are open!

What's a spiritual practice?

In the Keep Watch With Me Advent Reader, a project I’m co-curating with my friend Michael, I’ve been creating a unique spiritual practice to accompany each contributor’s reflection. And I’ve heard the question, “What is spiritual practice?”

Spiritual practice, spiritual discipline, and prayer practice are all phrases I use interchangeably to talk about ways we connect to God.

Wiser saints who’ve come before me use that language of practice or discipline because a life of faith and prayer, and for that matter, a relationship, are not things that are mastered or completed as a one-off. We practice like a musician or an athlete, growing more at ease with the task yet never reaching a place of completion or arrival.

In her book, The Spiritual Activist, Claudia Horwitz says that a spiritual practice has three characteristics: 1) It connects us to the presence of the sacred, 2) It is something we do regularly, and 3) It grounds us in the present moment.

Spiritual practice is not a one-size-fits-all affair. It’s not even one-size-fits-you-forever. Different personalities and seasons of life call for different forms of connecting to God, and a practice might have different patterns or duration. The long walks I took with my son when he was a newborn, cradled in a wrap on my chest, don’t fly for a busy toddler who wants to get out of the stroller after 10 minutes. The appeal of daily scripture reading fades for the seminarian taking multiple biblical studies classes. Silence and solitude may be draining, not refreshing, for those who work alone, when you might be better nourished by meaningful conversation.

If you decide to try a new practice, but feels too uncomfortable or simply doesn’t resonate for you, you can feel free to let it go. It may not be for you, or you might revisit it later with surprising connection. Creative spiritual practice can be approached with confidence in the presence of God’s spirit and openness to the myriad ways that God loves and leads us to peace, as well as a good sense of humor and openness about the ways that we may or may not encounter God in a particular way.

Hopefully that’s a helpful intro, or offers you some new language and ideas to consider prayer and spirituality.

What kinds of things are you practicing these days? What regularly connects you to God and keeps you present and grounded?

If you’ve been enjoying the spiritual practices included in Keep Watch With Me or are looking for new opportunities to grow, experiment, and seek God in community, I invite you to join An Epiphany in the World, a Facebook-based book club and spiritual practice group I’ll be facilitating in this upcoming liturgical season of Epiphany. You can join the group and learn more here.