Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wilderness: Practices of Getting Lost and of Finding Yourself

In the 1980's I joined a women's business networking group as I was bumping into the glass ceiling in corporate America. Many of the other women were in similar positions. It meant that we were juggling what it meant to be a woman in the business world, to be talented, to be successful, and for many of us, to be other things that we couldn't talk about at work. Over the course of a year's worth of monthly meetings I developed relationships where some wonderfully deep conversations occurred, often in the parking lot after dinner, where we talked about those things that we couldn't talk about at work. One courageous woman told me she had been hospitalized for mental illness and was still being treated for bipolar disorder.

Having been lost in mental illness, she was trying to make her way back. As I recall, she was networking to try to find a job, but in the process she was becoming an advocate for people with mental illness. In talking with her, I realized how we, in our society then (and still now), put shame and blame on people with a mental illness that we would not on people with most physical illnesses. I think that she was perhaps the first person I had met who came out as having a mental illness, and her courage and passion for justice stays with me still.

I'm savoring the reading of An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. Chapter 5 is "The Practice of Getting Lost," subtitled "Wilderness." Wilderness is an important Biblical metaphor and Taylor makes the case for getting lost as a spiritual practice—a way to practice for the inevitable wilderness experiences that life will throw at you. The left turn away from your regular route home that adds ten minutes to your ride has the potential of opening your eyes in important and necessary ways.
The road leads me into the ghost town of an old mill on the river, where the hulks of deserted buildings perch at the edge of the river like a herd of petrified mastodons. Turning away from them, I follow the wind road past an old softball diamond, complete with ramshackle bleachers, where the mill workers must have played at one time. Before I know it, I am lost in the lives of those people as well—living in mill houses, going to the mill church, working for mill owners who paid them in chits they could use at the mill store—which, like the softball diamond, has fallen into ruin." (p. 71)
How do we truly love our neighbors if we have no idea of who they are or where they live? As long as we stay on safe and well-known paths, we don't risk seeing places where injustice and greed cry out for us to do justice instead. But even closer to home, as a spiritual practice, Taylor suggests that taking the small risk of getting lost prepares us for the wilderness.
These are benign forms of getting lost, I know, but you have to start somewhere. If you do not start choosing to get lost in some fairly low-risk ways, then how will you ever manage when one of life's big winds knocks you clean off your course? I am not speaking literally here, although literal lostness is a good place to begin since the skills are the same: managing your panic, marshalling your resources, taking a good look around to see where you are and what this unexpected development might have to offer you. (p. 72)
Popular religion focuses so hard on spiritual success that most of us do not know the first thing about the spiritual fruits of failure. When we fall ill, lose our jobs, wreck our marriages, or alienate our children, most of us are left alone to pick up the pieces. Even those of us who are ministered to by brave friends can find it hard to shake the shame of getting lost in our lives. And yet if someone asked us to pinpoint the times in our lives that changed us for the better, a lot of those times would be wilderness times. (p. 78)
In the book Gifted by Otherness, the authors make the analogy between patterns of spiritual growth and coming out. The journey toward spiritual maturity has three iterative phases: an awakening or conversion, crossing the wilderness or facing the shadows, and then returning to the world. (p. 111) I say iterative because this process doesn't happen just once on the way to spiritual maturity. Author M.R. Ritley puts it this way:
Coming out is the common heart of our particular journeys as gay men and women. For lesbian and gay Christians it is an inextricable element of our spiritual pilgrimage. For some it is the fulcrum of a spiritual conflict that estranges us from God or from the church, for others, the precipitating crisis that forces us into a deeper search for God. Almost never can the process be described as neutral. … Coming out is not peripheral to who we are as people or as Christians, rather it is the very form our spiritual journey takes, the means whereby God calls us out to be a people. (p. 110)
The example and experience of crossing the wilderness is a gift and a model that lesbians and gays can bring to the church and to spiritual communities. Coming out of the wilderness is as important as getting lost or going into the wilderness.

This week, my friends Ralph and Leslie were on the front page of their local newspaper. Ralph had been the Director of Human Services and a pastor in that city, and on the front page of the paper he courageously came out as having early onset Alzheimer's disease. Ralph has always been an advocate for human rights, and continues to be as he faces how he and Leslie and their family and friends will deal with this journey. Our faith community is very involved with them as they journey, and we are all growing spiritually.
"People think if you have Alzheimer’s, you are crazy or feeble," Leslie said. "But it’s not true. That’s one message we want to get across."
Ralph is neither. Bright-eyed and active, he does chores, cooks, fixes broken items around the house and is an avid reader. "People think of Alzheimer’s as the worst thing that can happen to them, but it’s not," he said. "I like to think that life, any life, is a gift."
Of course there are problems. And it’s not easy, but Ralph and Leslie believe that with the right kind of support, one can still lead a fulfilling life.
I know from my own pastoral experience that people with memory disorders and those who love them are entering a wilderness. In many ways, Alzheimer's is a process of continuing to get lost, sometimes literally. But it is also an opportunity to seize and pay attention to this moment, just as Taylor describes.
"The thing that’s most important, Alzheimer’s or not, is that you are a person," Ralph said.
Leslie added, "For people who fear it, it’s not the end of the world or the end of life. I’ve learned from Ralph to appreciate things more — like the moments we have."
What we fear is that we too may get lost. What we need to learn is how to live our way through the wilderness, and notice what and who is around us in our journey in this moment.

I also happened upon another courageous coming out this week by black pastor and gospel singer Tonex. Speaking about coming out in a TV interview and the reaction he got, he said:
You know, it's not easy growing up in a Pentecostal/Evangelical church, where everyone is pretty much anti-gay, although it's common knowledge that some of the most anointed musicians and singer-songwriters have, or have dealt with, same-sex attraction at some point. For me, it was particularly taboo because of my upbringing and the ministerial call on my life. I then had to think about the repercussions of this revelation. But I knew I had to get free. That interview was cathartic for me.
Take the time to watch the TV interviews available in three segments online, or at least segments two and three. In my research on the status of welcoming and affirming churches, I found no historically black churches/denominations that were even having conversations about this, so this is a big hurdle, a dangerous wilderness, for our black brothers and sisters. Listen as well to his musical response: "This is All of Me."

Wilderness is freeing, and scary. I don't know if a practice of getting lost intentionally, as Taylor suggests, will help us deal with our own wilderness times, but perhaps I'll take a left turn on the way home tomorrow and see what I notice, and live in that wilderness moment.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Practice of Wearing Skin and Fellowship

One of my daily morning practices is stretching, and I pray as I stretch. My first few prayers are done just in breathing, as I stretch my legs and hip joints to one side and then the other. Breath is ruach, the Spirit, and I invite the Spirit to dwell in me fully again each morning.

After several more stretches have limbered my joints enough to consider standing up again, particularly now as mornings are chilly, I turn and do what yoga practitioners might call an extended child's pose, kneeling with my hands stretching out as far in front of me on the floor as I can. It's a great shoulder stretch, but now it invariably reminds me of the Baptist-Muslim National Dialogue conference I went to in January, and the Muslim Friday night prayers I had the opportunity to participate in.

At that conference Cheryl Townsend Gilkes from Colby College made the connection between the historical fact that many of the slaves brought over to American colonies from Africa were Muslims and many were forced to convert to Christianity by slave owners. But she pointed out that the Islamic influences lingered on in the spirituals.
And so as I stretch in this pose, so similar to the full outstretched Muslim prayer prostration, I remember and hold the stretch long enough to sing a couple of lines: "When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun, O Lord have mercy on me."

As I get up and stretch my hamstrings and calves, I stretch on each side and sing another song that I learned in Sunday School, that was perhaps a reminder of the Muslim calls to prayer:
Whisper a prayer in the morning,
whisper a prayer at noon,
whisper a prayer in the evening
to keep your heart in tune.
Once I've stood up I continue stretching and praying, mentioning those people whom I am praying for by name—opening the world for God's presence in their lives. Then in my final stretches, I pray for myself.

I think it's very appropriate to pray and pay attention to the body, to the aches and tight spots. I'm continuing to read An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor and she talks about the "practice of wearing skin":
(p. 43) The daily practice of incarnation—of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh—is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels. Why else did Jesus spend his last night on earth teaching his disciples to wash feet and share supper? With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give them something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do—specific ways of being together in their bodies—that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself.
What do those concrete things remind us to do now? Where do we find incarnation these days?

Over the weekend I attended the Northeast regional gathering of the Alliance of Baptists. The Alliance is either a movement or a fledgling denomination. This gathering did not remind me of church business as usual, although a lot of the elements were familiar, but they are thinking about what gathered believers need and want in associational fellowship, while maintaining Baptist principles and a commitment to welcome, hospitality and fun, as well as to social justice and peace. In the preaching, in the singing, in the communion, in their covenant and in the fellowship before and after, these people are doing a fine job of remembering that we are the body, and acting on what Jesus taught—we need to care for the body. I knew a few people there and was warmly welcomed by both those I knew and those I didn't know. The conversations were lively, supportive, and interesting. It really was fun, and such a spiritual boost—that's what a fellowship will do: bring joy (and yes, we sang Leaning on the Everlasting Arms).

Recommended reading from the gathering's sermon: The G
reat Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle:
"Phyllis Tickle offers a creative and provocative overview of multiple social and cultural changes in our era, their relation to previous major paradigm shifts, and their particular impact on North American Christianity. This is an immensely important contribution to the current conversation about new and emerging forms of Christianity in a post-modern environment—and a delight to read!" —The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church
"Tickle, author of God-Talk in America and PW's founding religion editor, observes that Christianity is holding its semimillennial rummage sale of ideas."

What is trash and what's worth keeping in the rummage sale? That would be prophecy… All of my reading and encounters convince me that we are and need to be in a time of great change about our religious institutions and spiritual practices. Does ordination (making/protecting order) in/through today's church and denominational structures make sense in this time that we are called to embrace or create change? Since institutions by their nature are resistant to change, they protect homeostasis by choosing/ordaining leaders who will keep the same old order. On the other hand would Luther have had the same impact if he had not been ordained within the institution that he was trying to change? Can you tell I'm waiting on the next step in the ordination process?

While I wait I'll just continue to practice wearing and appreciating my own skin, and hope that you will do the same. As Taylor put it:
(p. 42) One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.
Blessings to us all!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Truth Values and The Future of Faith

It was a week that drove me to chocolate in quantity, up until Thursday evening when I left work behind to head over to Harvard Yard where Harvey Cox was celebrating his retirement after 44 years. Harvey exercised his ancient cow grazing rights as Hollis Professor of Divinity, by bringing a lovely Jersey cow to the yard, named Faith.

Harvey asked our church choir to sing Robert Louis Stevenson's poem The Cow (set to the tune of Amazing Grace) and then one verse of Amazing Grace as the benediction to the event, so I was part of the event, as well.

Harvey was also celebrating the publication of his latest book The Future of Faith, and I took the opportunity to get an autographed copy. This is an important book, perhaps a necessary one for people of faith, as a guide to what lies ahead in the Age of Spirit, as we leave behind the Age of Belief, the Christian era since the Emperor Constantine's takeover of Christianity in 355 CE.

Harvey emphasizes that beliefs and faith are not the same thing, and that we are leaving behind the Age of Belief where a list of items that we must believe was enshrined in our religious lives. Rather, in the Age of Spirit we have increasing numbers of spiritual, not religious people, who do not believe in all/any of the items in the creeds, but instead understand that practicing our faith is more than reciting a litany of what we believe. Actions speak louder than words, and doubt is perhaps a necessary part of the way of faith. For Harvey this was highlighted when an acquaintance described himself in conversation as "a practicing Christian, not always a believing one." (p. 16) I've only had time to read the first thirty pages, but recommend this book to you.

In Harvey's speech at cow/retirement celebration event, he said the arguments about science versus religion are dead (or at least need to be). His perhaps prophetic look at faith (like all prophecy, we'll have to wait to see) dovetailed nicely with the second profound event of my week—an outing with friends to see the play Truth Values by Gioia DeCari at the Central Square Theater. It only has one more week in the run, and I highly recommend it. It is a one-woman show, an autobiographical look at the actor/author's years in trying to make it through the math maze as a Ph.D. student at M.I.T. She captured in her writing and in her acting the essence of the time and place, and of the dilemmas and sexism facing women in math and the sciences.

In one early scene DeCari attended the Good Friday service at the MIT Chapel and is struck by a mathematics professor's reading of Pilate's question to Jesus: "What is truth?" That reading spurred her research about truth values. But what are those? Not what we unsuspecting lay people would think. In one interview about the play, she said,
I especially liked the idea of using the math research I was doing at the time as a central metaphor. The title, “Truth Values," is a technical term for the notion of true vs. false. My research examined the consequences of adding other values between true and false, sort of a formalization of the idea of nuanced choices. This resonated with the choices I was facing in my life at the time…
The common theme in both Harvey's celebration and book and in DeCari's work is that a binary, black/white approach to human behavior and motives, to passions and faith, to truth and beliefs, and human relationships with creation, is inadequate. Asking if you believe in one creedal statement as a litmus test of Christianity is as untenable as asking if, because you are a woman, why aren't you at home raising babies rather than learning math.

DeCari's play reminded me of how much I don't want to be put in a box because someone has a preconceived notion about who I am, or should be. I suspect and hope that Harvey Cox's book will help us find a path out of the belief boxes that Christianity has been trying to maintain for the past sixteen hundred years into a faithful and faith-filled life.

Moral: Faith and art (with a side of chocolate) are better than just chocolate for a tough week.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Clutter, Distraction, Fear and Song

One of the things about paying attention (see posting of August 23, 2009) is that you begin to notice things. Duh. So in this last week or so, I've begun to notice things around my house: the piles of paper on my desk, the magazines and catalogs on the stairs by the front door, the extra jars of applesauce and salsa on the kitchen counter, the bag of books I packed for my weekend away that I didn't read, the new CDs that haven't found their way into the CD rack because it's full, the bushes in the front that really need to be pruned, the grass that is overgrown on the curb...

I've also begun to acknowledge my feelings about this time of transition: no longer in seminary, seeking a call, taking steps toward ordination, changes in my current job and new people to supervise at my workplace, state and national economic uncertainties, friends and colleagues with undiagnosed illnesses, and my daughter starting high school. Most of those changes are scary, although some are scary with potential for joy.

And I made the not so amazing leap that perhaps the clutter and mess has a strong connection to my fears. Serendipitously, yesterday morning I read this poem by Wendell Berry from Sabbaths (San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1987). (This volume is out of print--I found it at a used book store in North Adams, MA while on vacation.)
1979: I
I go among the trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing
the day turns, the trees move.

Now the mess and clutter also has something to do with having been in seminary for the past five years while working full-time. Housekeeping, beyond levels necessary for general health and sanitation, has been low on my list. So, my lack of energy for and interest in housekeeping stem from habit and frankly from the need for rest after pushing through the last few years. But this poem was to the point: I need to sit with my fears until I don't fear them and then I'll find my song.

A couple of weeks ago at work at staff meeting we had a time management discussion using the PBS produced DVD by Julie Morgenstern, Time Management from the Inside Out. I've taken time management seminars and taught time management seminars, so I was a bit skeptical that I would learn much. Morgenstern's first premise is that you have to find and have life balance and identify your big picture goals in each area of your life, and that time management is about living your life in the way that's best for you. In order to figure out what's blocking you in doing that, she has a three-level diagnostic: that there are technical errors, external realities, and psychological obstacles. A one-hour video didn't give me enough time to think about and apply the diagnostics, so I borrowed the book. One clue that this book is not designed to make you merely more efficient: an exercise called "keep a joy journal."
(p. 145) If you've been so focused on taking care of other people that you've lost touch with what makes you happy, try keeping a "joy journal" for a month or so. Start paying attention [note to self, a recurrent theme?] to what delights you. … Whenever you notice you have just done something you've enjoyed, jot it down in your journal. … Give yourself permission to love what you love, whether it is cleaning out your refrigerator, reading poetry, or painting your kitchen.
I also noticed that she first wrote a book Organizing from the Inside Out. Since clutter issues seemed to be more troubling than time management at the moment, I thought this might be a better place to start. So on the way home I stopped at the library and checked it out.

Highlights of what I've learned so far in using her diagnostics about my clutter.
Biggest technical error for me, and #1 on her list: "Items have no home." See list above of things I noticed about clutter in my house. [Where do you put your magazines?]

Most prominent External reality #3: In Transition. Say amen to that one.

Psychological Obstacle #1: Need for Abundance [Otherwise, why would I have extra jars of applesauce and salsa?—I just think it's part of being hospitable. My friends vote my house the best place to visit in case of an emergency.] Her solution: find ways to organize rather than reduce. See technical error #1 again—where is the home for those extra jars?

Psychological Obstacle #7: Need for Distraction
(p. 32) Disorganization can serve as a convenient preoccupation to help you avoid issues or tasks you don't want to deal with or face. To put it another way, as long as you have a closet to clean or a stack of papers to sort, your mind remains distracted, leaving no room for weightier concerns you find uncomfortable or difficult to think about.
Oh, is that what this clutter is about? Is it a way not to think about my fears about the changes in my life? If I clean up the clutter, will I have time and room to deal with the feelings I'm not wanting to feel? Eek! Morgenstern suggests that you need to think and analyze using the diagnostics, then strategize about what to do and then attack. So I'm still analyzing and strategizing.

Nonetheless, I cleaned off the table between the recliners in the living room yesterday. I pruned the bushes and trimmed the edges. I took the books out of the bag and designated a shelf for those not yet read. I recognized that the magazines need a home.

Just those little things created some space to reflect and feel. So, yesterday afternoon I sat down and began to write a song. It's not done, still needs work, but in song I begin to capture what is important for me, and I noted writing does bring me joy, whether in blog essays, lyrics, or music.

"After days of labor, mute in my consternations, I hear my song at last, and I sing it."

May your labors on this Labor Day weekend also bring you to song.