Sunday, November 27, 2011

Awaiting Joy

"The people that walked in darkness
have seen a great light:
and they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death,
upon them hath the light shined."

These words, penned by an ancient Hebrew prophet, set to music over 300 years ago by a German composer, still hold tremendous power.  What a magnificent promise - offering a vision for which I am not only willing to wait, but to work.  

As we begin the period of waiting and preparation that is Advent, these words articulate the hope that awaits us - that invites us into active expectation.  We learn in these days to wait for the coming of the Christ, and of His Kingdom.  And as we wait, we also prepare - hoping to become the kind of people who will recognize and welcome Christ upon his arrival, and who will work with him to see this promise come to pass.

Wishing you the peace of Advent - the peace of resting in the assurance of this promise.  And as you rest, may you also find ways to work and prepare for the earth-shattering arrival of the Prince of Peace.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Hope and Newness

Kester Brewin and Peter Rollins have been blogging this week about radicals and conservatives. Kester briefly lays out the terms:
"Perhaps a radical is someone who does believe that newness, genuine newness, is possible. Whereas a conservative is perhaps someone who believes that new expressions are possible, but these are only reformulations of old things – and thus the old is preserved, even if it is reformed."
The world in which I live believes newness is impossible: I am surrounded by fans of Solomon, continually quoting "There is nothing new under the sun" in response to my wistful pleas. The upside of this perspective is [perhaps forced] contentment with things as they are, and commitment to working within what is known and accepted. It's a safer and more grounded perspective, anchored in what is known and proven - and, quite frankly, (from a theological perspective, at least) it's more easily and convincingly defended.

On the other hand, this perspective absolutely quenches my hope. If I look around me and assume that anything good I might hope for will have to come from what already is, the flatness of potentiality is devastating. I want desperately to believe the words of the prophet: "Behold, I am making all things new." (Rev. 21:5) And I want to believe that newness isn't just a characteristic of the afterlife. I want to also believe the Gospel writers who wrote about "new wine", and the writers of the epistles who spoke of "new creation." Not to mention Jesus, who ushered in both a "new commandment" and a "new covenant."

I understand that roots are important, and that we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. I don't question my indebtedness to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, or to the medieval mystics John and Theresa. I wouldn't be the person I am without the influence of my Mennonite ancestors, or of my faithful parents. But just as undeniable are the few remarkable occasions in my life when something completely broke and then was transformed. Out of emptiness, out of the rupture of all that had been, was born something radically new. You could argue (and many do) that the "new" thing was in fact linked to something very old, and on some levels you would be right. On the other hand, I inhabited both the former and the latter - and I can tell you, categorically, that the new truly is new. I couldn't have gotten here from there without a radical change, without the gift of something breaking in and utterly transforming that which had been into that which now is.

Pete writes,
"Thus both the radical and the conservative are interested in the past, but in different ways. One thinks that the past must continue to be brought into the present while the other thinks the past is a womb from which an utterly new event can arise..."
My hope is with the radicals.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On my way to work

On my drive in this morning, I left the radio off (though it was top-of-the-hour and I could have listened to debt-ceiling news to my heart's content). I didn't even turn on my iPod. Mostly because I was too sleepy to care, but probably also because it's a beautiful summer morning out there and I wanted to soak in every detail.

I drove under a windowed walkway that spans the highway, and noticed a floor polisher at work. It was probably a college student, riding one of those huge indoor tractors that shines the tiles while you ride along... the poor driver was leaning forward, elbow resting on the steering wheel, clearly bored out of his mind. Made me wonder - how often do we automate ourselves into boredom? Mind you, I'm grateful to drive to work rather than walk, but how much of my daily routine would be at least more interesting if I didn't have a gadget to do it for me?

This scene was followed closely by one of automated disaster - the smell of burning toast filled my car as I drove past a series of coffeeshops and restaurants. The conflagration must have been a significant one, spreading as it did across the four lanes of traffic. The smell brought back memories of a fireworks shop in eastern Kansas. We walked into a warehouse bursting at the seams with explosives, and were overwhelmed by the smell of cigarette smoke! With a wry grin, my husband asked the saleswoman about it - after some verbal fumbling, she explained that she had just burned her toast. Right.

About the time the smell worked its way out of my car, I passed my favorite part of the drive - a spectacularly landscaped lawn. Fountains, waterfalls, beautiful plants - every bit as beautiful as our local botanic gardens. And it's simply the entrance to an office building. These folks take corporate responsibility to a whole new level... not only are they caring for their land, they're making it beautiful for all who pass by. I, for one, am grateful to them every morning.

And now I've made it to work, so glad I left the radio off.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


No sooner have I boarded the plane, than the intense experiences of my African visit begin to fade into a surreal blur. Did I truly watch wildebeest and zebra leaping over each other to cross the Talik River? Was that me smiling over a cup of tea on the front porch of my “tent”? Did our family really meet and share chai with our dear friends in Karai?

Africa can be an overwhelming place, at best. Beginning our stay in Rwanda was undoubtedly a good way to ease into it – the country has been affectionately referred to as “Africa light.” Long chats with Mom & Dad, home-cooked meals, new friends, watching sunsets from the veranda with gin & tonics in hand… Mosquito nets, ostensibly to ward off malaria-ridden insects, in actuality added a romantic flair to a very comfortable landing on the “Dark Continent.” I rested well, and enjoyed forays to local markets, walks in the neighborhood, and an afternoon on the shores of Lake Kivu.

Having gotten our “Africa legs,” and largely recovered from jetlag, our family ventured on to Kenya. Nairobi was all I’d expected it to be—and while traffic jams may have been a nuisance, even an hour parked in the middle of a Nairobi street has its charm. Rush hour in the city, however, doesn’t hold a candle to rush hour in Masai Mara. We flew into our camp in time for a casual lunch, followed by the game drive of a lifetime. Elephants, giraffes, water bucks and buffalo, leopards, cheetahs, and a pride of lions feasting on their prey—all in the course of three hours! It was nearly more than a mind could hold. The remarkable thing was that we had two more days to soak it all in. We criss-crossed the plains, traversed muddy streams, and waited patiently to watch the Great Migration actually begin to migrate. The kids and I found ourselves snatching naps between ostrich viewings and rhino hunts… was it the African sun, or perhaps the sheer excitement of the time, that made us so sleepy?

Our guides were delighted that Mom spoke Swahili, and made it a point to teach all of us as much as they could. At the end of each full day of exploring and soaking in the beauty, perhaps our favorite phrase was, “Lala salama.” (Sleep well) And sleep well we did. Our “tents” were more like luxurious canvas-roofed apartments, the meals were fantastic; waterbottles at night and hot tea with our wake-up call topped off a spectacular stay.

And then again, we shifted gears. In a small town on the floor of the Rift Valley, we at last met the friends who have so enriched our lives over the last several years. We shared meals and chai with the administrators of the CRCA (the African partners of Kenya Matters), took walks and played games with the children who live there. We were profoundly encouraged by the great work going on in Karai, and by the godly enthusiasm of those who’ve given their lives to care for orphans (and by extension, many widows as well.) We were simply delighted by our time with the children, who welcomed us and shared their joy lavishly. Their dancing and singing are perhaps some of the most beautiful sights and sounds I’ve ever enjoyed.

This time, too, however, came to an end, and we headed back to Kigali for one last day, and our farewells to family, friends, and then, the continent. One final breakfast on the veranda, animated conversations with friends new and old, one last gin & tonic as the sun set over one of Rwanda’s 1000 hills.

Perhaps it’s no wonder this all blurs in my consciousness. The variety, the beauty, the intensity likely overwhelm my ability to sort it all. At one point in the trip, Kurt and I laughed at Africa’s defiance of any attempt at a “unified theory.” Instead of trying to sort it all as it happened, I simply tried to absorb it. I watched the lightning flicker across the Rwandan sky and wondered at the beauty of the spectacle. I stood in the back of the Land Rover as the Kenyan sun beat down and the breeze blew in my face, and drank in the immensity of the landscape. I laughed with my family and friends, treasuring each moment in their midst. I walked with orphans, listened to the birds with them, warmed my hands on a cup of chai they selflessly shared with me.

I know this all happened, I am sure I was there—but not by the clarity of my memories. Instead, I know it because I am changed. Not perhaps in a way I can clearly articulate, but more by a general sense of expansion – as if the vastness of the landscape and the warm hearts of the people have somehow left their mark.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pardon me while I beat my head on this wall...

As some of you may know, I have found my spiritual home in a highly liturgical, hierarchical church. It's a bit of an odd fit for an out-of-the-box, flat-leadership sort of person, but there are a number of reasons that this is "just right" for me - some of which I understand, some of which as yet remain mysteries to even me. I have grown to love the liturgy, to look forward to singing the Psalms, to anticipate standing for the Gospel reading... I'm being formed by the rhythm of this life, and for this I am truly grateful.

But then there was yesterday. For the second time in as many years, an unprecedented series of events left our congregation without a minister on a Sunday morning. And for a host of reasons, in this case none of which I understand, the entire service had to be changed. Rather than the Sunday morning liturgy, we substituted a service of Morning Prayers. The Gospel was read from the pulpit rather than in our midst, and we sat for its reading. Eucharist was out of the question.

I'll be the first one to acknowledge that Morning Prayers were beautiful. The range of Scriptures read was profound, and, this week in particular, meaningful to me. A service that centered around Psalm 23 was touching, comforting, and a challenge to bring my personal sorrow into God's presence. The music, abbreviated as it was, was beautifully done and deeply moving.

But I was hungry, so hungry, for God's presence in the Eucharist. My entire body screamed to stand and acknowledge the wonder of Christ among us. I ached to hear of God's incarnation, and God's suffering. But because the right person, with the right credentials and right standing, was unavailable to our congregation at that precise time, I was turned away still hungry. Compliance with a set of rules, and observance of a hierarchical set of values, swept aside the beautiful rituals that have drawn me to this community. The grief and hunger of this community had to be set aside for tradition and "Order;" "playing it by the book" held precedence.

This, I beg, is a far cry from the freedom we've been granted in Christ, from the call to each of us as Christians to serve as Priests, from the promise (read in unison during yesterday's service) that wherever two or more are gathered, Christ is there with us.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Facebook : on the de/fence

I recently found myself surrounded by the last remaining trio of human beings who has not joined facebook. They're smart folks (brilliant, in fact) and more relational than your average group. But they had nothing good to say about social media - they decried it all (and fb in particular) as nurturing a false sense of connection and contributing to an overall shallow approach to relationship.
Now, I don't doubt their insights. We didn't engage the topic for long, and I'm sure their list of reasons for shunning this realm is well-reasoned and incontrovertibly defended. On the other hand, they don't stand a chance of convincing me. Why not? Well, for starters:

1) Social media developed organically out of our culture, for a reason. We westerners live fractured, distracted, commuter lives. This isn't the ideal for human flourishing, to be sure, and I certainly believe we should be active participants in subverting these dynamics. On the other hand, this is the reality we face. And social media allows us to continue to interact in spite of significant challenges to relationship. It streamlines planning for actual face-to-face contact, it allows virtual connection when physical meetings are impossible, and it reminds us that our lives are inevitably intertwined with a broad community.

2) In an era of high mobility (both chosen and forced) social media can help us maintain a level of connection to our roots. Unlike letters every other month (the story of my childhood) we enjoy up-to-the moment engagement with people we love but who live far away. For a TCK, (ThirdCultureKid) this is invaluable.

3) Social media serves as a tool for not just relational networking, but for intentional & expanded learning. I could sit here and keep writing, or I could learn from my friends and connections. I could keep arguing my point, but I'd much rather hear yours. Why do you think social media is a good thing? Post your thoughts here, argue with me (or each other). Help me think this through!

Friday, March 11, 2011

glimmers of ashes and dust

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Our priest's voice echoed around the hushed nave as we quietly filed forward and knelt before the altar. With eyes downcast, we each awaited that gritty reminder that we are here today, gone tomorrow. That life is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes intoned in a foreshadowing of this liturgy, meaningless.
Somber silence, however, did not get the last word this time. In response to the words of Jesus, "Let the little ones come to me," entire families accepted the invitation to participate in this sacramental moment. Toddlers slid sneakily back and forth along the smooth wooden pews; infants cooed and cried and shook noisy toys. When the ushers brought the offerings forward, one carried his small daughter; the other was trailed by his toddler, clinging to the back hem of his coat. At the altar, a big sister watched with wide eyes as her little brother received his first ashes. Another little one, accustomed to the gift of bread and wine, held our hands out anxiously to the priest. When he reached to mark her forehead, she pulled back in surprise - he gently blessed her, and she watched with curious fascination as he moved on to bless her parents.
It is a sobering, and even grievous thing, to remember that I come from - and return to - dust. But I must also say that these years in between, these moments of "dust-life" - are magnificent ones. God breathed life into this dust that is me, that is you. God gifted each of us - boisterous little ones included - with God's own image. God took this form - the form of dust - to love us. What more could we possibly ask?! In the light of God, even the dust shimmers!

Friday, February 18, 2011

TSA Rituals

We Americans like to think of ourselves as pragmatic, rational, and free of superstitions. But after my recent trips through TSA checkpoints, I've come to believe otherwise. Seldom have I seen such ample evidence of superstitious behavior, rituals fueled by fear. Think of it like this:

How many of us arrive at the airport early? Anxious about travel, we appear to believe that extra time in an uncomfortable gate waiting area might somehow pay a cosmic debt that could otherwise result in flight delays or missed connections. We stand in line, sometimes for quite a long while, to ensure our safe admission to the desired and much-protected inner sanctum. We carry in our hands a small white slip of endorsement as evidence of our merit, and surrender it when requested by the gatekeepers of security. We remove our shoes in hopes of being deemed worthy of entry. We offer up our possessions on the conveyor belt of inquisition, and place all our valuables in gray tubs of scrutiny. We disrobe to the bare essentials before passing through the gate of surveillance, and submit ourselves to rituals of probing and scanning. We share in the communal retrieval of goods, and together bow in gratitude for the privilege of passing through (and to tie our shoes).

All of this, while most of us realize that new & improved "safety measures" have in fact not added any measurable security to our air travel. It would appear that instead, we find comfort in the ritualized appearance of safety, and are willing to pay our dues for the emotional comfort we find in these rites.

Friday, January 28, 2011

God's Image

During last fall's EV Theological Conversation, Colin Greene told a story that has stuck with me ever since. It's not just that I've remembered it, but that it keeps confronting me. I'm challenged over and over, in myriad contexts, to face that story, to measure myself against it. It's an unavoidably convicting story. It's also a beautiful one. And I'm never convicted without simultaneously feeling inspired, encouraged, and even--oddly enough, affirmed. The story is a simple one:

Colin once visited a Greek Orthodox church with a friend. After a ceremony of chanting and incense burning, the priest turned and bowed to the congregation. The people then bowed in return. Colin leaned over to his friend and asked what all the bowing was about, and his friend responded, "He is bowing to the image of God in us."

Struck by the beauty of that sacramental practice, I've been challenged over and over to put its truth into action. Less than 24 hours later, I was shuttling through the Atlanta airport behind a gray-haired army commander. Political inclinations aside, I was unspeakably grieved by this reminder that in our world, there are people who make a living from the business of killing. My visceral response to this reality is typically a show-stopping one, but here, on an airport escalator, I could not escape Colin's story. With face burning and tears in my eyes, I ever-so-subtly bowed to this man's camo-clad back.

Only yesterday this story took on new meaning for me as I read the closing chapter of "An Interrupted Life" by Etty Hillesum. Etty was a Dutch Jew, chronicling her way through the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam and her own parallel spiritual awakening. In this final letter, she describes a round-up of 1000 Jews for a transport to a camp in Poland.
‎"When I think of the faces of that squad of armed, green-uniformed guards--my God, those faces! I looked at them, each in turn, from behind the safety of a window, and I have never been so frightened of anything in my life as I was of those faces. I sank to my knees with the words that preside over human life: And God made man after His likeness. That passage spent a difficult morning with me."
Finding God in the image of the other, I think, can sometimes be an impossible task. Its impossibility, however, doesn't get us off the hook. We are called, repeatedly and continually, to look for God's image in the other - and whether we find it or not - to honor its presence.

(*Note: as I wrote this on Friday morning, halfway around the world an Egyptian woman was putting these same thoughts into action. During a protest for change and freedom for her people, she chose love - over anger - as her means of challenge to power. I've added her picture, widely circulated by the news media, above.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Causality of Negative Space

I came downstairs the other day to find my dh reading a book with the title: "Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use" and - I am not making this up - grinning from ear to ear. He paused long enough to furiously scribble a note in the margin and then went back to the book, loving every minute of his "just-for-fun" reading. Now, I'm hardly one to cast stones - after all, I read philosophy and theology, neuroscience and even occasionally quantum physics thrown in for good measure. But I must admit, watching my husband go back to school and find his passion has been a kick.
We've both been surprised to discover the number of ideas his studies have stirred up with significant parallel applications in our respective fields of geek-dom. What he gets all excited about exploring in the context of evaluation often has fascinating relevance for my theological investigations. His note in the margin on Sunday was one of those ideas: "the causality of negative space." I'm sure he'll take that and run with it in a paper for grad school or a journal article, but I've been brewing over what that looks like in my own context.
We Americans focus a lot of energy on cause-and-effect, generally assuming that the greater force we exert on the cause end of the equation, the greater effect we'll achieve. We're proactive doers, and intimately familiar with the causal nature of activity.
But what about "negative space?" Silence, stillness, inactivity - do these yield results as well? Looking back over my life, I think many of the very best things were actually brought about by an active participation in, or at least embracing of, "negative space." My attempts to meditate, for instance. Miserable a failure as I may be, the regular practice of stillness has softened and slowed me down. Or having learned to [very occasionally] be silent in conversation. What a gift, to sit and simply enjoy the presence of one I care for. And what remarkable connections have been forged in silence, rather than in frantic conversation. My husband's extended unemployment years ago - negative space in so many ways cleared the way for a fullness we could never have dreamed up. In the arena of faith - the empty place of darkness and doubt yielded fruit that could have grown in no other way. In parenting, sometimes making myself "absent" is precisely the motivator my children need to step up and fill the space with their own efforts and achievements.
I think we busy doers have much to learn from this notion. The goals we so often "tackle head-on" and strive after are perhaps best pursued in a radically different way. The inverse of our instinct, in fact, may often be the most effective means of reaching our objectives. We would do well to look for this "negative space" - to see where in our life it has been formative, to consider where in our lives it might be put to constructive use.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Heaps of Rubble

I've been thinking lately about faith, and about what life looks like after faith has fallen apart. So many of us, particularly in my generation, have reached a point in life where circumstances, or education, or our own questioning, brought us to a point of doubt--and then beyond.
Like many of my peers, I grew up with a strong sense of commitment to God, faithfulness to my local Christian church, and a passion to make that God known. My faith in God was a strong wall - a place of protection and comfort, of direction and purpose. It guided my decisions and gave my life meaning.
Then the hard times came. A [liberal arts] education started running cracks through the mortar of my assumptions. Suffering--my own, and that of the world at large--tore at the bricks so carefully laid. A deep spiritual and emotional darkness descended over my life, and crumbled the few remaining bits of wall. When light at last began to dawn, I found myself disoriented, standing in a heap of rubble, with dust and smoke drifting past me into the obscure distance.
Out of the haze, I eventually began to discern other figures. They stood amidst their own heaps of rubble, shaking their heads and sorting the confusion of their own crumbled faith. Many of them dusted themselves off and began to walk away. Some chose to walk in the direction of the receding darkness, while others followed the rays of light that cut through the swirling dust. Still others slowly began rebuilding, right where they stood. They lifted each brick, brushed it off, and put it back in place.
As for myself, I spent quite a while in that rubble. I was angry about it, I grieved the loss of my wall, and I watched closely what others were doing. Then, almost without knowing it, I picked up one of my bricks and laid it on the ground in front of me. I laid another after that, and then another. Over time, I found I was laying a path. Not a path with a definite destination, to be clear, but one that circled and wove its way through (and perhaps beyond) the debris. I'm still laying that path, dusting off the old bricks, mixing in a few new ones, even occasionally stepping off the pavers into the mud. It has turned out to be a confusing, hopeful, sometimes painful, joyful adventure - finding my way forward on this path of faith.
One of the greatest surprises of this stage of my faith has been the communion that has grown with other rubble-dwellers. Regardless of what we've chosen to do with our heaps of debris, we have in common this experience - our once trusted walls have crumbled, we have breathed the dust of their extinction. Our eyes have burned with the fine grit of crushed faith, and we have grieved the loss of what we once held dear. Our conversations grow out of deep empathy and shared questions. We have suffered, perhaps not together, or identically, but still alongside one another; we have learned of darkness and doubt and shock. As we chart our courses in the wake of this disaster, our parallel experiences draw us together.
Some of us will walk away, some of us will rebuild, some of us will survey the confusion indefinitely. So far, there seems to be no one "right way" to sort out this loss. While our future paths might lead in varied directions, we are comforted, and yes--blessed--by the privilege of this shared memory. What we may or may not do in the days to come remains to be seen, but this we do know: we are held together in the solidarity of the rubble.

(Photo used with permission,