Praying by Singing

Bless the Lord my soul / and bless God’s holy name….

~Prayer Song from Taize “Bless the Lord”

The chants of Taize captured me the very first time I heard them. They became something I could not live without during seminary. It started with vespers. One of the most profound prayer experiences I have ever had occurred during the silence of a Taize service. I ended up leading the Taize vespers on campus.

I eventually moved from the campus to an intentional community modeled on monastic and ecological principles. In my community at Myra House we gathered in the early morning for prayer. We prayed using Taize chants often. So often that they became the natural part of life. Singing “Omni Gentes” while loading the dishwasher after community dinner seemed natural and life-giving.

The Psalm for this Ash Wednesday starts “Bless the Lord, o my soul / and all that is within me, bless his holy Name.” (Psalm 103:1). It is an affirmation of life to bless. To bless one’s creator is also an affirmation of all creation. That affirmation of life-givingness is something I want to hold on to. The Psalm does not stay in life affirmation but it does start and end there. The Psalm elucidates God’s gifts, forgiveness, salvation, judgement of the righteous, knowledge given my teachers and prophets, and yes the fact the life is short, and then, back to God’s mercy and blessing. The movement of the Psalm is also the movement of life. As we grow we experience awe at the world. Sometimes life gets messy and blessing may not be foremost on our minds, yet in the life cycle we generally return to some affirmation of life, some review of what we’ve experienced.

Ash Wednesday. This is a day we remember our mortality. A day we traditionally start the journey to the cross and facing death.

What if this year, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the retelling of the Psalm? What if this year we bless the Lord ? Rather then solemnly following behind Jesus as if the journey of Lent is a tragic duty.

Life is messy. I continue to be astounded by the number of people who expresses surprise that Lent can be done differently by taking up a spiritual practice rather than giving up something. This year I am forgoing the giving up chocolate. This year I am taking up the practice of responding “yes” to God. I am seeking to bless God by following where God may lead. Thus even if the road leads to the sorrow of the Garden in Gethsemane, my journey will be a joyful one of returning the blessing of making a full life out of what I have received. On the road, I will sing and pray as if I am loading the dishwasher even when I do not know where I am going.

Bless the Lord, all you hosts,
   you ministers who do God’s will. (Psalms 103:21)

 

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Maundy Thursday: Who Do You Say That I Am?

Genesis 12 ; Gospel of John 13, 18

I miss read the lectionary for today. I went to Genesis rather than Exodus. But that is when I realized something I had never thought of before.

It occurs to me that Sarai, the wife of the patriarch Abram, has something in common with Jesus. Both had their identities betrayed by someone they loved and trusted.

Earlier in this Lenten season we found ourselves confronted by the call of God to Abram to leave Ur, when we follow that narrative to Genesis 12 we find Abram and Sarai called again to leave for a new land. This time they are traveling from Haran into Egypt. Verses 10-20 are often left out of the lectionary which stops at verse 14. It’s almost as if the lectionary is trying to avoid the issue of true identity as it is fully raised in the text. You see, in the narrative Abram asks Sarai to pretend to be his sister rather than his wife. Thus, Sarai briefly becomes one of the wives of Pharaoh. When Pharaoh discovers this he returns Sarai to Abram and sends them on their way richer than when they arrived. So the patriarch seems to pimp his wife for wealth and power. Why would the lectionary avoid that!?

We don’t hear Sarai’s thoughts on these events. We can imagine what a wife might say to a spouse who asked her to pretend to be a sibling rather than a spouse~I’ll share my popcorn we can watch the show. But that is not in the text. What is in the text is that Sarai’s husband had to the power to change her identity, to say who she was. Furthermore we see that the redefinition of Sarai’s identity leads her to yet another whole identity completely.

It is Maundy Thursday, one of my favorite days of the Christian year. (Should I offer a prize for the reader who can guess my other favorite?) Jesus has gathered with the disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate the Passover feast, to wash their feet, to proclaim that his body and life are given for them (and us), and to proclaim his coming betrayal. The text tells us that it is as Jesus does these things that the decision is made in Judas’ heart to betray the Master. Jesus even tells Judas to go and do what must be done. Judas, one of the twelve disciples, one of Jesus’ trusted friends is the one who betrays him. It is Judas who must decide who he thinks Jesus is, and then Judas based on that decision will collude with the powers that be. It is Judas who will signal Jesus’ identity with a kiss in the garden.

In both these texts the issue of personal identity are the key issues. In both of these texts someone else decides whom the other is and takes action that will radically alter the both the life of the other, the life of the decider, and the unfolding of history.

As a woman with disabilities, many of which are hidden, I know what it is like to have others decide who I am. I know what it is like to be “in the closet”, having relationships in which there is little knowledge of my disability, and the anger others show when I come out of that closet and let my full identity be known. I know what it is to be vulnerable with others to let them know the depths of my experience and have to trust that they will know with whom and when to share that knowledge. I know what it is like to feel that trust betrayed. To watch at the annual school-house parent night as your parent outs you sharing with the teachers about your disabilities in front of classmates and other teachers. I know what it is like in the workplace when co-workers sense there is something different about you, but not knowing what it is decide they will name it–and I know what it is like when others redefine your identity so far from your known truth that it disrupts and utterly re-routes your own sense of self. With disability it is not so much identity politics as it is identity of individuality/self that is intertwined with experience of living in a body so different from the norm that with world around you is rife with barriers that disable. Life with disability is asking each individual you encounter, in some way–who do you say that I am?

Loving God, You who know me better than I know myself. You who created me to be fearlessly and wonderfully made. Help me to know myself, to share myself, and delight in the friends I break bread with. Empower me to raise my face even when others define me in ways that threaten my identity or life. Grant me Your strength and love, to always know myself, and to do Your will. Amen.

Living Does Not Lead To Death–Lent Week Five

John 11: 1-45

The Gospel of John is full of long and poignant stories. It seems we often only pay attention to this gospel in the season of Lent, and sometimes Advent. Perhaps that is what it is~a gospel of life and death. The lectionary for this week is exactly a recounting of life and death, literally, and one that underscores the impact that life and death have on community.

I have preached on this text before, it feels familiar. Yet this time what captures me is the line “This illness does not lead to death…”  They are the words of Jesus. Words that are so easily forgotten in our daily lives. As a chaplain I saw how illness can radically change a life of an individual or family, sometimes even led to the end of the physical life. The line is paradox. It is wise for us to ever remember the line that repeats through out scripture “be not afraid”. Both illness and death have a way of making people afraid in our real lived lives. Illness and death do of course bring change, different kinds of change. Change frightens us, always. Jesus seems to be reminding us that illness does not always  bring death. He is challenging a stigma that plauges  humanity to this very day. We assume illness and change lead only to death. Of course, the paradox in this text is that illness does lead to death, and then back to life. That is the cycle of Lent. It is also the cycle of life, forgiveness, spiritual growth, and resurrection among others.

John 11 is of course the recounting of the resurrection of Lazarus from the grave. When Jesus is telling his followers that Lazarus’ illness would not led to Lazarus’ death, it seems that Jesus was pointing them to the larger picture of existence, one that his followers could not imagine. The disciples had no frame of reference for anyone returning from the dead. As if to make the point Jesus delays his return to Bethany. When Jesus arrives at Bethany there is no doubt among any assembled that Lazarus is dead, and buried.

That is when the unexpected happens. That is when Jesus reveals that something beyond human understanding is at work, and that something more powerful than death can triumph. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave, and out Lazarus comes to greet the professional mourners who have been hired to wail at the grave. People have all kinds of justifications to make sense of this account. Personally, I do not think it is a literary device in the gospel to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. I think Lazarus was dead not sleeping, and I think he returned from that state to the living. I do not not know how it occurred other than through Jesus and powers we still do not understand. While I do not think it was foreshadowing, I do think Jesus may have been teaching those around him that there was more to life and death then their understanding.

I still think there is more to life and death than what we understand. My work as a chaplain in the hospital ICU wards and in hospice have only confirmed this belief. Although I have seen people resuscitated, I have never seen that done days after their death, after they have laid in the tomb. That is difference between resuscitation and resurrection~time. But this chapter of the Gospel of John and in the cycle of Jesus’s death and resurrection which we will celebrate and ponder in the weeks to come speak to us of something that, to me at least, is more intriguing than life and death. They speak to us of life after life in the flesh. What is beyond death? We don’t have answers for that. But as I ponder John 11, two things seem clear that Jesus loved his friend Lazarus and that life somehow exists after life in the flesh–if the former was not true how would Lazarus or Jesus return? Resurrection is more than an issue of time it also speaks to us of love for the companionship of the other, and God’s love for us. “This illness…”, this living, “…does not lead to death” is one thing that my work with persons who are dying has confirmed for me beyond any shadow of doubt.

Over Thinking: First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 2: 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Much has been written on the tree of Good and Evil. I believe I have even blogged on it before. But in this season the text appears afresh. As I look at the full lectionary for this week of Lent these are the lines that stand out to me.

Sometimes, I wonder if our post-modern world has taken all the beautiful gifts that God has given to us and analyzed them to death. That is not a slam against science or inquiry, I believe both are important. Science is helps us understand the things we can not see, things that may be to tiny for us to touch or to big for us to comprehend. Last Thanksgiving my husband and I took a trip to Monterey, California we drove through the Carrizo Plain, a geological wonderland where you can see the fault lines of the earth on the surface of the ground. On the plain is what is called “Soda Lake”, it is essentially a lake of baking soda and I found it fascinating. The place is a natural wonder. When we arrived at Monterey we went to the famous Monterey Aquarium and again I found myself in awe at the complexities of nature, and even more in awe of the One Who Created it all!

If the world we live in is so amazing, I have to wonder about all the people we live around. I know we live in a twenty-four hour news cycle that always seems to be negative. It is a cycle that fuels our fears of “the other”–the immigrant, the person of a different religion, the person who speaks another language or has different speech, the person who looks or moves through the world in a different way, and it seems like there has been an intentional effort to separate ourselves from those who experience reality differently then we do–the ones who live with mental health issues.

God created the world and the people in it and called all of it “good”. Isn’t that our story? As I come to these lines of scripture today, I find myself wondering if God wasn’t also telling us don’t over analyze it just go with it. Over and over again God tells people to “go”, “let go”. Jesus tells people “follow me”. We are never asked to analyze or judge. We are asked to accept, to go out and work with what we find. This scripture is a warning to us that if we over think things we may lose the ability to be and act appropriately in the world. It is a command to not stigmatize, for when we do we lose something of ourselves.

This Lent as I reflect on my ministry, and my journeys into the world, I want to examine if I have always been as open as God has called me to be. I want to work to undo the over-thinking. I want to work against the stigmas that separate us one from the other and to live into the prayer that Jesus offered in saying good-bye to his followers…”that they may all be one”.

Collared

It is the first week of Lent and I may have already failed one of the major challenges of the Lenten journey. I am not one to give things up for Lent, and I have been notoriously bad at picking up a new spiritual practice to carry for the Lenten season. I think a lot of people are like me in this regard, or perhaps I am like most people. Or perhaps since Valentines Day fell on the second day of Lent this year, I could not create reality out of the notion of giving something I liked up and chocolate being present at the same time. See, this Lenten stuff all gets very complicated.

I did actually take something up for Lent this year, more specifically for Ash Wednesday. As a chaplain I have found that Ash Wednesday is probably the one holiday that I am called upon to function as clergy in ways that many parish pastors do. In fact, it is the only Christian holiday that calls for me to prepare and led a worship service in the context of my ministry setting (memorial services are different.) So this year I decided to go for it! Inspired by Womenspirit’s sale, I ordered a clergy collar shirt! I was not at all sure it would arrive in time for Ash Wednesday but it did,  so I took it as a sign that I should wear it to work.

The shirt is a lovely royal blue. The collar was tight and uncomfortable but we became friends by the end of the day. I have to be honest. The context in which I minister is one where my authority as a woman clergy person is regularly challenged and occasionally outright denied. This is not specific to my context, its specific to mainstream American Christianity, I know this. Several of my colleagues had encouraged me to wear a collar to work, Ash Wednesday and the need to lead a service, seemed the perfect day, so I did it.

This is what I learned from a day in the collar. The collar has power. There is no doubt about it. It  defines one’s role–as I found I did not have to introduce myself as the chaplain because people assumed. A collar defines one role and authority externally but internally as well. I felt more confident in my role, and there was I felt flow of respect towards me that I don’t always experience. It was as if the sight of me in my collar demanded a recognition not often granted.

It felt great! And that is where I failed, or so I thought. Yes it did feel great to experience authority and respect in ways I do not experience it when I am not wearing a clergy collar. But this was not exactly the rush of new found authority and sovereignty, as in the temptation Jesus faces in the wilderness. It was not that because it was not lasting. It was not that because it was not ego-infused. The clerical collar will come off and former patterns of relationship will no longer be interrupted by its presence. I thought I had failed a Lenten insight because I had experienced for the first time the authority people grant to those in the collar, and I thought it was good. I did not fail, because I realize that experiencing the power of  this authority was not about me. The only authority I have is the authority entrusted to me by God to care for God’s people. It is the authority of the yoke, the predecessor to the collar. The authority granted to those who answer the needs of others, even when that collared individual may desire to choose another way, like sleep. The collar is powerful, but it is not the power of authority, only the power of authoritative servitude and reluctant prophethood that flows from answering God’s demand to love others.

Others: Lent 3

The Lectionary reading for the third week of Lent is John 4:4-42. It is the text about the Samaritan Woman at the well and her conversation with Jesus.

I want to start by thanking my former seminary classmate, the Rev. Alison Rainey English, for posting this video on Facebook. I thought this was a breathtaking retelling of the text, so take a minute and watch it:

This video reminds me that the art of biblical story telling is one that I have much respect for. It is an art that seeks to tell a story in a new way, to reach out and shake the audience into new awareness of what is being said, much like poetry does. Perhaps this is why this particular video strikes me. (There are other similar portrayals of this text.) It makes me take notice of the woman at the well and her story that became so much of the encounter with Jesus.

I have been pondering this text in part becuase it may be used in a worship service that I am helping to plan for a conference this summer. It is indeed a rich text, perhaps one that begs for the liturgical arts be present as witnesses to it. But this text is also one that comes up time and again when we talk about crossing social boundaries to invite others to our faith and to include them in worship. Here is a woman possibly outcast in her own society, certainly a woman who has seen her share of trouble, who is also a member of outcast group talking with Jesus. Jesus who does not shy away from her but engages in dialogue with her. Gail R. O’Day makes an interesting point by naming that while this woman is often seen in some immoral light because she has had five husbands Jesus does not condemn her for this but rather allows her to become an apostle by telling her people about him (Gail R O’Day, “John” in The Women’s Bible Commentary, Westminster: Louisville, 1992, 296). The truth is we don’t know much about the history of this woman before she meets Jesus. She may have been repeatedly widowed or part of a non-Jewish marriage that was based simply on a contract that could be exited at will–but we know what she does when she meets Jesus, that she unlike many in the gospels recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and we know she acts as an apostle after meeting Jesus.

It is precisely the actions of this woman in contrast to those of the disciples that strike me as a Lenten nugget in this text. This woman is outcast as a woman, outcast as a Samaritan, outcast by having a personal history; this woman is not only welcomed by Jesus but takes it upon herself to become an apostle. This Lenten season we have thought about fault and sin, about leaving and change, and now we are faced with a text that appears to lift up a person who would not be lifted up as a religious example as one who sees and seeks the truth. The woman at the well is the other who only seeks truth and love while being denied both by society. But all that changes when she meets Jesus. For Jesus reveals the truth to her, a truth that sends her back into her community, where she might to be listened to.

Could it be that the Lenten journey is one that not only calls us to examine our own actions but to also examine our social expectations to consider who we may be missing, and the truth they have to share, when we decide who is in and who is out according to our traditions? Jesus did not exclude persons; he always found a way to bring the other in. Perhaps this third week of Lent we are called to meditate on that part of the journey. The stories we could tell, and we still have so far to go!

Fault: Lent 1

Lent has taken many forms over the years. In the early Christian Church Lent was time of preparation for baptism. Lent has also traditionally been a time of penitence. To this day many Christian communities view Lent as a season of personal reflection on how to live up to Christian ideals. There seems to be a current shift in the observances of Lent with many Christians now using this time to intentionally take up spiritual practices and draw closer to God. Whether drawing closer to God, engaging in personal reflections, observing the practice of penitence, or preparing for new life, the scriptures in the Bible seem to be one of the foundations to which we, as Christians, turn during this season. For this reason, I will be attempting through out this Lenten season to offer some scriptural reflections on this blog and these reflections will be based on the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) or feminist lectionary Women’s Stories from Scripture for Sundays and Festivals: Remembering the Women by J. Frank Henderson, which also follows the RCL while offering passages reflecting the lives of biblical women to be used when the RCL does not.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that the scripture for the first week of Lent, the season of repentance and reflecting on sins, is Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 about Eve and Adam eating of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. It is a text often pointed to as proof of “Original Sin,” the “untrustworthy” or “evil” nature of women. If you are unfamiliar with this passage or would like to refresh your reading of the text you may do so here. It is a text that has long affected the relationships of men and women, particularly in the realm of religious understanding and authority. But what does it say to us in Lent, about penitence, about drawing closer to God, about living the Christian life today?

I recently had occasion to re watch an episode of Bill Moyer’s wonderful PBS series Genesis in which Moyers, himself a pastor, gathers a variety of thinkers, artisans, scholars, and theologians to reflect on the major stories in the Book of Genesis. One of the Genesis episodes named “Temptation” addresses the Genesis passage about Adam, Eve, and the Tree of Knowledge. (And yes I must admit spending an hour listening to scholars discuss this was heavenly.) I mention this episode because in rewatching it I was particularly struck by two issues in the Adam and Eve text that I don’t think we often talk critically about: fault and relationship.

So often we approach this text with our tendency to idealize and analyze, and I wonder if in doing so we miss something important. We often imagine Adam and Eve in the garden with all their needs meet and without much worry. Perhaps it was ideal, certainly having all my needs met so I can simply be sounds ideal. But Adam and Eve were human. I have not lived as long as some people have but it does seem to me that one of the traits of our humanity is that if things get too easy we become bored; when we have too few challenges we wonder about new things, we strive to do something new, something to change the status quo although we always hope it will change for the better. It seems that some of that is a foot in this text from Genesis. Eve acts. If we ponder that without judgment for just a minute (go on, I dare you!) we see something different emerging from this. Steven Mitchell, in the Genesis episode comments that Eve is “the one who makes everything happen, who acts out of love for God, if God is wisdom.” (Genesis: a Living Conversation, New York: Doubleday 1996, 47.) In the text the serpent tells Eve “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” It is in some ways Eve’s eating of the fruit was a very Lenten act for it was an act to become closer to God, to “be like God”.

Yet, seeking to be closer to God can often change things in unforeseen ways. In the Genesis story, Eve took a human risk to do something different in order to become closer to God. But things did not work out the way Eve expected. There is in the text evidence that God told Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge before Eve was a part of the story, Eve may not have had this command directed at her. Nevertheless, whether Eve defied God, as is often said of this text, or whether Eve was acting out of innocence (which seems a closer reading of the text) Eve’s eating of the fruit changes the relationships in the Garden. In Genesis, prior to this episode God is portrayed as walking in the Garden with Adam and Eve. Yet that changes after the eating of the fruit. In the Genesis episode Marianne Meye Thompson makes the point that after the fruit is eaten “they clothe themselves, as if to hide from each other. And they also hide from God.” (Genesis, 52). The text then is about human changes. Changes in human ingenuity, changes in human spirituality, changes in relationships between man and woman as well as between humans and God.

Our text seems to indicate that changes in ourselves also lead to changes in our relationships with others. One of the other things I have noticed about humans is that we don’t like change. Adam very much portrays that aspect of human nature in this story. For when God asks why they are hiding, why they know they are naked, Adam explains that Eve gave him the fruit to eat. God does not fall for it. God does not tell the pair that everything is going to be okay. Rather, God acknowledges the change in all their relationships that will take place, perhaps because of their acts, but also because of the change that has taken place in the man and woman themselves. Not only is change never easy, but in this case the change also brings about suffering. In the Genesis episode Elaine Pagles says of this text that “it insists that suffering has to be somebody’s fault.” (Genesis, 50.) As Christians we live with a tradition that (perhaps not originally) for many centuries has taught that this is a text that tells of how a woman brought sin into the world and how man was given power over her. Sin is a form of suffering. And yes this is a text that speaks to how suffering came about in the world. But woman did not bring suffering into the world. The wisdom of acknowledging suffering existed in the Garden, locked in the Tree of Knowledge, before Eve was ever there. Once that knowledge of suffering, once innocence, came out it could not be put back. There was change; change that required Adam and Eve change their relationships to one another. Once change is proclaimed, it is not always a pronouncement about the way things will be forever. We know this. As Christians, it becomes part of our being. For our teacher Jesus was always challenging the ways people related to one another, turning relationships upside down, inviting the outcasts—even the outcasts from the Garden—back in. Change is part of the Good News!

So, welcome to Lent. Whatever you seek to do this season whether penitence for sins or drawing closer to God through spiritual practices, be aware that such changes can have profound effects on all your relationships. And may God be with you on the journey.