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Archive for April, 2012

For the two and a half years before I went back to school to get a masters degree, I rented a 100-year-old farmhouse on eight acres of land in the northeast Georgia mountains. That region is definitely my soul’s home, and I loved living there more than any other place I’ve lived. Many days I would sit on the front porch watching the local traffic go by, or the horses in one of the nearby pastures.

On one of those days, a small fire began when a tree fell and took a power line with it that then set the grass on fire.  Because of a drought, everything was frighteningly dry and so it didn’t take much to get things smoking.  Luckily, the fire was out and the power restored pretty quickly and aside from a scorched place in the pasture, everything turned out fine.

I’ve read that a fire in a forest can spark new growth; the combination of more sunlight getting to younger trees, more air and maybe needed nutrients getting into the ground seems to kick start the life force again.

I think that can happen with people too.  We’ve all known periods in our lives that can only be described as fiery; those times when things get so hot and hurt so badly that we’re left as dark as scorched earth.  Maybe those fires are sparked by loss, illness, or by changes that we just didn’t see coming.  No matter the reason, when we’re in those furnace times, we usually just want to get out as quickly as possible.

Yet I’m always inspired by people who came out of their own fires with more courage, strength or wisdom then they had going in.  Can’t we all name people that lived out the definition of “grace under pressure?”

I was amazed several years ago to learn the story of Thomas A. Dorsey (a Georgia native) and his writing of the hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”  Dorsey had been a blues pianist, working in bars, until a spiritual healing after a nervous breakdown led him to commit his life to God.  The result was the creation of modern gospel music.  In 1932 he left behind his pregnant wife to perform at a revival in St. Louis, when he finished singing he was given a telegram saying she had died in childbirth.  He rushed home to learn he had a son.  Dorsey held that baby all night, but by morning the boy had died.  He was bereft and withdrew from life, until a friend left him in a room containing only a piano.  In those quiet moments, the notes to “Precious Lord” – one of the most beloved gospel songs ever written – came pouring out.

A while back, I was listening to “A Prairie Home Companion” (as a lifelong Lutheran, it seems kind of like a requirement) and Garrison Keillor led the audience in a singing of “It Is Well with My Soul.”  Horatio Spafford, who penned the lyrics to the song, was also no stranger to fire.  He was married with five children but lost his only son in 1871.  Just a few months later, the Great Chicago Fire consumed his real estate investments and he lost all his savings.  Then, in 1873, the family planned a vacation to Europe.  Spafford sent his wife and daughters on ahead so he could tie up some loose ends before joining them a few days later.

The ship on which they sailed collided with another, and 226 people lost their lives.  When she reached safety, his wife sent him this heartbreaking telegram: “Saved alone.  What shall I do?”  He left immediately to bring her home, and when his own ship crossed the waters where his daughters drowned, he wrote these words:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Out of the ashes; life.  Out of the ashes; song.  Listen, and you’ll hear the sound of faith.

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Earlier this morning, I moderated a session at the National Student Conference at Claremont Lincoln University, where I’m a PhD student in process theology/philosophy. The theme of the session was Religion & Politics, and three students talked about the Occupy movement; Kafka, Marx, and economics; and native Hawaiian land rights.

A post-session discussion sparked some thoughts about what I think is troubling America.

The threads I want to weave together on this include comments Phyllis Tickle made in a recent address to Claremont about the “Great Emergence,” as well as an article I read online that made a good case for the argument that all this fighting about access to birth control coverage was really just a fight about sex. So let me see if I can bring this all together in a way that makes sense.

When I read the article about sex (and I really wish I’d kept the link), the author talked about how birth control loosened the power grip that men had over women and their bodies and who they had sex with, and how all this hoopla about health care coverage of birth control was all a struggle to keep women disempowered. I think there’s a lot of truth to that – as there’s been a long history of men controlling their daughters and their wives in this way in centuries of patriarchy. But I think the problem is deeper than that, and it’s one we’ve not been willing to face in the U.S.

I think it’s about the fact that everywhere we look, the foundations of life as we once knew it are crumbling and people are overwhelmed and very frightened deep down. There’s a lot of talk in religious circles these days about the “emergent church” but Phyllis Tickle thinks it’s not just the traditional structures of organized religion that are crumbling but that we are currently going through an epochal upheaval of the kind that seems to happen every 500 years or so.

Here are just a few of the foundations that have been crumbling around us (from a non-historian’s perspective):

Gender roles – women entering the work force during WWII, the feminist movement, and access to birth control have certainly played a part, and men, who were used to being the locus of power in the marriage, in the family, in the workplace, and in their communities are being asked to learn a different way of being (as are women).

Family relationships – this goes back even farther, to the start of the Industrial Revolution when people became much more mobile in order to follow the jobs and extended families no longer stayed near to each other. Moreover, whereas people who farmed or crafted things used to own their own means of production, industrial capitalism meant that the means of production became concentrated in the hands of a few capitalists and the laborers traded their labor for cash, losing more and more control over their economics but gaining what they thought was security. And for a while that was true, but that security has proved to be elusive, and workers now have less and less cash for their efforts while the capitalists take all the flow of profit that is earned by their workers’ increases in productivity.

Faith in an absolute, transcendent and powerful God – the Enlightenment and the rise of science tore assumptions about the existence of God right out from under us, and the predominance of scientific materialism – along with the horrendous genocide of WWII and the Holocaust – caused philosophers to proclaim the “death of God.” We’ve lost this access to the sacred – both in an outer way and in the inner way of soul – which is something humans cannot live without, and so we try to substitute sex, drugs, rock and roll, and other transient things that don’t deliver any lasting sense of meaning to life.

The illusion that we have control over anything – though humans have never really been in control, we’ve always thought we were, but economic collapse, the perception of increasing violence, constant war, unemployment, and a host of other chaotic realities have shaken us to the core.

Neither our religious leaders nor our political leaders seem to have a clue about the degree to which people feel shaken and crushed by the ever-increasing upheavals and changes that predominate. Though maybe it’s long overdue for those who’ve always been the recipients of status and privilege (white people in America) to experience their own dose of disempowerment, it’s still traumatic.

And so – I think – when we hear people yell “Let him die!” regarding lack of healthcare, or when people seem to care less and less about the poor, or about racism, or about sexism, or about homophobia, or about indigenous rights, or about the environment, or about the myriad of other looming problems that we face, and run for the hills into the safety of “Dancing with the Stars,” I think these are just symptoms that point to a much deeper loss of soul and a loss of center that has us feeling like we’re in the perpetual “spin cycle.”

I will write more about this as time goes on, but let me just say for starters that I think the only way we’ll survive this upheaval is for us to change the way we view embodied life on planet Earth. We must be willing to let go of the idea that there are bedrock and eternal doctrines and structures from which we must never deviate, and instead understand that life is inherently chaotic and riddled with change and that the only way to survive is to learn to ride the waves. We must learn how to release the anchors that were never really securing us anyway, and learn how to open to the flow of Life that comes to us every day with a mixture of novelty and order, beauty and terror, but which is girded underneath all surface appearances by the power and energy of Grace.

I welcome your thoughts; let’s have a conversation.

 

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What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep, you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and there plucked a strange and beautiful flower? And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then? ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I love dream work. I don’t even remember when I began working with my dreams, although I know that I began my love affair with all things Jungian after reading Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. That book and her audio series Theatre of the Imagination are truly banquets for the soul. I’m glad I still have a car with a cassette deck so I can keep listening to Estes’ evocative voice and entrancing storytelling while driving. But I digress; we were talking about dreams.

Dream work is commonly done in Jungian psychology, and it is based on the idea that our psyche is made up of both conscious and unconscious aspects. Jung believed that the unconscious held information of which we were not yet aware, but which could be life enhancing and important for our well being. In addition to our personal unconscious, he believed there was a transpersonal collective unconscious which holds the kinds of archetypal patterns that come to humanity in dreams, fairy tales and wisdom stories or myths. He believed that there was a pattern of wholeness in each psyche that he called the Self, and that this Self could use the symbolic language of the unconscious to speak to us through dreams.

Rev. Jeremy Taylor, a Unitarian Universalist minister and author, believes that all dreams come to us in the service of health and wholeness. I personally believe – and have experienced – that dreams are a language that God uses to be in dialogue with us, to show us love and to give us guidance. Tuning in to our dreams, I believe, helps us tune in to God’s purposes for our lives.

I’m currently in a doctoral program at Claremont Lincoln University, and taking a class in Teaching Contemplative Practices. Last night, I led our class in a contemplative practice using dream work. Though I’ve led groups before in dream work – where the whole gathering works together on one dream at a time – but last night’s practice was different, more meditative. I suggested that this practice could be almost like a kind of lectio divina, where the dream is approached as a sacred text. After the participants reviewed their dream in their minds, and then wrote down the images and the associations they held for each, I invited them to hold all the images in front of their minds’ eyes and contemplate them like an icon, like a window to the Sacred, opening themselves to any message that the dream may have come to offer. Finally, we paused in silence and gratitude for the dream and the Dream Giver.

Many of the participants shared that they’d had an “aha” moment of new insight into something related to the dream. Certainly, those kinds of insights can be just as sweet as any rose with which we awaken.

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My last post was about those times of waiting in the dark – or in the “soup” – when we don’t yet know what new life may be born after the death or loss we just experienced. But as with the cycle of seasons, the “winters” of our lives are always followed by the new life of Spring.  I’ve been emerging from a dark winter myself in these last few weeks, and so it has been helpful that there are physical signs of new life as I walk around my neighborhood. Whether it’s a preponderance of bunnies hopping around or the brightly enthusiastic songs of birds, all these things are a comfort.

I especially love bluebirds. I was not aware that I’d see bluebirds in California, as I only knew of the Eastern Bluebird, but I’ve come to learn that there is a Western Bluebird. So in honor of these lovely creatures, I’m going to share an essay I wrote when I was still living in Georgia while in another time of waiting and watching – for new life.

* * * * *

Lately, I’ve been enjoying those tell-tale sings of Spring’s presence – the fresh green grass that’s almost neon-like in its intensity, the increasing volume of the morning bird sounds, the purring made by the first hummingbirds at the feeder and the nighttime chorus of frog love songs.

I have to confess that I’m in love with birds and have always considered them visiting angels.  There’s a very special place in my heart for Eastern Bluebirds, and I always stop and stare when I notice that flash of blue breezing by.  A couple of years ago, I nailed a bluebird house to the side of the shed and though I usually notice a mated pair investigating its interior every year, there must be something about it that isn’t pleasing since no family except for the wasps has yet set up house there.

Once again this year there’s a bluebird family at the top of my chimney, as I often hear them chirping while I’m in the living room.  The old wood stove pipe must be a particularly good audio conductor, because it always sounds as if the birds are right in the room with me.

In the first spring after I moved to Habersham County, I came home one evening from an out of town trip and was horrified to discover a dead male bluebird in my kitchen.  I had just two indoor cats then and wondered if they had chased the poor thing around the house until it died of fright because its body was untouched and perfectly glorious.  I could tell by the droppings left behind that he had gone to nearly every window in the house in his desperate attempts to find freedom.  Each time I imagined his panic it just made me cry all over again.  Before I buried him in my garden, I stroked his lovely feathers and told him how sorry I was that I’d not been able to release him from his indoor prison.

In the days that followed, I told my friends that I didn’t think it was a good omen that the “bluebird of happiness” had died in my house.  I mean, just how is one supposed to interpret that?  According to Wikipedia, mythology around the bluebird has existed for thousands of years and it is a “widely accepted symbol of cheerfulness, happiness, prosperity, etc.”  In a 17th century European folk tale called “The Blue Bird,” two children are sent out by a fairy to find the bluebird of happiness and when they return empty-handed they learn the bird has been at their home the entire time.  Native American cultures consider the birds to be sacred and I’ve learned a dead bluebird is “a symbol of disillusionment, of the loss of innocence, and of transformation from the younger and naive to the older and wiser.”  When I think back to my journey over the last few years, it now makes perfect sense for that symbol to have landed in my kitchen at that time.

Just the other day, my next step finally became clear.  I’ve decided to move to Chicago to attend the Lutheran School of Theology there.  My hopes and prayers are that I will find my studies and my new academic community to be enriching and soulful and that this work will lead me to a vocation that will sustain me, one that I will love.  I leave my beloved north Georgia mountains in July.

A couple of weeks ago, after much loud chirping in the living room, I looked up from my desk to see another male bluebird in the house.  This time, I witnessed his fluttering from window to window.  This time, I was able to surround him with my soft hands and escort him out the back door alive and well.  I’m hoping that’s a good sign for the new life to come.

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Most mornings, I pop onto Facebook and read through the postings while I’m eating breakfast. Many of my Facebook friends are people that I went to school with at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and many of them are pastors. So I saw a lot of postings about Holy Week, Good Friday, crucifixion and the meaning of it all, and then bits and pieces about what to do with Holy Saturday – that odd day that sits between the mourning of Good Friday and the Alleluias! of Easter. A current classmate, Hannah Heinzeker has a new blog called The Femonite: Musings from a Mennonite Feminist, and her husband Justin offered a guest blog there about “The Waiting Times of Life” on Saturday.

One of the best books I’ve read during a particularly tough time of waiting is one by Sue Monk Kidd called When the Heart Waits. In it she talks about the necessity of being willing to sit still during those dark “in-between” periods – where we know something has ended but the new life hasn’t quite yet emerged. That’s exactly what Holy Saturday is, and with the Easter perspective we have as Christians that have witnessed Christ’s resurrection, it’s easy to get all comfy in this much-better post- place of life and light. But I can only imagine the shock and grief that pressed down upon Jesus’ disciples and friends after they took his body from the cross.

My home church in Marietta, Georgia is the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, and it’s often used the symbol of the butterfly, as well as the phoenix, since both are strong symbols of resurrection. We all know the basic facts of how the caterpillar goes into a cocoon one day as a caterpillar and emerges some time later as a butterfly. We may even have read emails and web postings about someone who helped cut a butterfly out of its cocoon so it didn’t have to struggle so hard, only to find it couldn’t fly with wings undeveloped by the stress and pressure of struggle. But here’s something you may not know, and I first heard it from Deepak Chopra (and promptly passed it along with great result at a following Mythic Journeys Conference).

While the caterpillar is in the cocoon, its cells start to liquefy, and the caterpillar becomes just a soupy shadow of its former self. Once it is no longer caterpillar and is just soup, particular cells begin the process of coming together that finally forms the beautiful butterfly. And those cells are called imaginal cells. Imaginal! They are called imaginal cells because an adult insect is called an imago. Of course, we can connect these words to imagination, which is the process of forming images. But we can also talk about the imago dei, the image of God,  that we were created with and which lies dormant in us in the same way that the imago of the butterfly is already present in the caterpillar.

Maybe the next time you are waiting, mourning the death of one beautiful life while waiting for the new life to emerge, you can begin to imagine the butterfly, the resurrection, that is promised.

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One of my favorite movies is 1984’s “Places in the Heart,” starring Sally Field, Ed Harris, John Malkovich and Danny Glover.  It is set in Depression-era Texas where Field plays a young woman suddenly widowed when a young black boy who’d had too much to drink shoots her sheriff husband and then himself and thrusts her into the role of provider for herself and her two small children.  She is helped in her efforts to raise a crop of cotton, and to bring it first to the cotton gin for extra prize money, by Glover’s character – a drifter – and the blind “Mr. Will,” played by Malkovich.  It was through this movie that I first heard the hymn “Blessed Assurance,” one I’ve loved singing ever since.

The movie is full of pain and tragedy although, thankfully, it ends on a positive note.  I’m not sure if the saying I’ve associated with it ever since was featured in text in the opening credits or not, but the words I remember go like this: “There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; pain must be in order that they be.”  I take this to mean that the sad truth about human existence is that our hearts can be expanded – new places created – through painful events.

In searching the Internet for that phrase and its attribution, I’ve learned that it was written by French author Leon Bloy and that mine is not the correct version.  In truth, Bloy wrote:

Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.

The writer who set me straight says that Bloy’s wisdom reminds him of something said after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by President Kennedy: “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”

I’m also aware of a passage from the 30th Chapter of Isaiah that the Jerusalem Bible translates in this way:

When the Lord has given you the bread of suffering
and the water of distress, he who is your teacher will hide no longer,
and you will see your teacher with your own eyes.
Whether you turn to right or left,
your ears will hear these words behind you,
‘This is the way, follow it.’

What this says to me is that if God emerges as our visible teacher after we experience suffering, then God is first our invisible teacher through the disguise of that very suffering.

Oftentimes, a sticking point for unbelievers is the inability to understand how an all-powerful God could allow suffering.  Yet it’s my opinion that a human coming to an understanding of suffering is like a dog coming to an understanding of calculus.  We’ll never have the capacity to reach that level of perspective.  From my limited perspective, though, wisdom isn’t the only by-product of suffering; it is in suffering’s pressure cooker that we develop compassion and humility as well.

The reality-bending final scene of “Places in the Heart” is unforgettable.  In that scene the congregation shares the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and all are present in that feast – from the hard-working heroes of the story to the now-dead drunk who shot the sheriff and even those who in their racist fury beat Glover’s character to try to prevent his success.  All are at this table of forgiveness – those who suffer and those who caused that suffering – for we all contain both aspects.  This is the humbling truth of human existence, we all fall short and we are all still loved just the same and the suffering we experience along the way can give us new places in our hearts of more forgiveness, more compassion and more love.

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We are coming upon the end of the Christian season of Lent, with tomorrow being Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. Most people may not think about this aspect of these days much, but this course of days is a living out of the life-death-life cycle that we see everywhere throughout all of creation. It’s represented so wonderfully in a favorite hymn called “Now the Green Blade Rises,” with text written by John M.C. Crum in 1928:

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Most of us don’t think about that when the new plant life springs up, it’s a result of the death of the seed. We don’t like to think about death, but it’s as much a natural part of the universe as is life. And it’s a requirement for new life to come.
I recently went through my own death and rebirth, due to ideas about God that I was carrying around that had to die. The seeds of this death were planted in me just about three years ago, and so today I’m going to share an essay I wrote at that time in 2009 when I was living in northeast Georgia and did a silent retreat in Cullman, AL.

What Will Happen if We Wait for God?

Before the fruit is ripened by the sun
Before the petals or the leaves uncurl
Before the first fine silken root is spun
A seed is dropped and buried in the soil.

We are currently in the Church’s season of Lent, which, like Advent, is not a season of celebration.  These are times of waiting and of the kind of light-scarce in-between-ness that those who only visit churches on Christmas and Easter typically want no part of.  Lent is meant to honor the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tested.
So it’s fitting that I am spending five days of my own Lent this year in a retreat house run by Benedictine nuns in Cullman, Alabama.  I’ve been in some spiritual distress lately, and needed to immerse myself in the silence of a place outside of ordinary life, where I could seek some measure of resolution.

For the last several months I’ve been busy submitting applications for graduate school and though I’m very excited about this new pathway of theological education, some old familiar dragons have been rearing their ugly heads again.
Like many people, my early life was no picnic, and those years left a host of bumps and bruises on my psyche.  I’ve spent most of my adult life digging the corpses out of my inner archeology, but even after all that effort, I am still haunted by disembodied voices that seem to be able to moan only one tune – and it’s full of rejection.

Most days I can keep a lid on that voice and go about my daily business with confidence and cheer, but when that self-rejection demon is unleashed it returns with a vengeance.  It’s became very clear to me that this is not a voice I want to take to graduate school.

So I came to this monastery to find the courage and the loving space to deal with this part of my shadow.  I’d read a book in which the main character learns that running from his dark shadow only gives it more power, but turning to face it and recognizing it as a part of himself allows him to embrace it and, in so doing, to become whole and free.  I adopted “whole and free” as my new credo and came to the convent armed for spiritual dragon, ready for figurative sword fights.

I’m writing this three days into my retreat and things have not necessarily gone as planned.  I think God is asking me to put down my sword and to stop working so hard; that I don’t have to stand on my head to be loved.  I think God is telling me to take my hands off the wheel of this bus.

I think God is teaching me that God is not a big angry Father in the sky or even a Benevolent Cop that I have to appease by perfectly following all the rules in order to be given permission to live.  But I’ve lived my whole life turning myself inside out to please a stern Father-God so I could be loved, and feeling like no matter what I did, it was never quite good enough.
So what will happen if I let go of the reins and quit trying to make healing happen through my own sweat and tears?  If I just hang myself and my heart out here – naked, hungry, scared and vulnerable – will God come?

I don’t honestly know.  So I wait in this time of Lent.  I wait in the darkness before dawn, like the seed that is first buried in the soil before it is reborn to new life.  At least that is my hope.  Today we sang a hymn called “Before the Fruit is Ripened” by Thomas H. Troeger and Carol Doran and it ends with these words:

Before we gain the grace that comes through loss
Before we live by more than bread and breath
Before we lift in joy an empty cross
We face with Christ the seed’s renewing death.

* * * *

The rest of the hymn about the rising of the green blade goes like this:

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are saddened, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

I hope this season brings new life to whatever places in your heart are “saddened, grieving or in pain” and that the Sacred Life within you arises green.

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