Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Book Review: Denial Is My Spiritual Practice

The following is a review of Denial Is My Spiritual Practice by Rachel G. Hackenberg and Martha Spong. I received a complimentary copy of the book to review. Last May. And I'm thankful their book reminded me imperfection is okay.

Women of deep, messy faith get married. And then they get divorced. And then they get married again and divorced again. Or not.

They live with depression and PTSD and all sorts of illnesses that remind them and us we often collapse under the weight of things done to us and left undone to us and sometimes, many times, for no discernible reason at all.  Because mental health matters are not signs of weakness or sin or bad living. They are part of life. 

Women of deep faith have moments of beautiful, lyrical poetry and prayers and sometimes just sit in the fear and frailty of all that is life and realize they are one stolen truck shy of a country song.

Women of deep faith hate walking labyrinths but love the peaceful elixir that is a Starbucks chai latte.

Women of deep faith fall in love with people and are often surprised by that love and scared of sharing the joy of this love with their family members. They also would like to be surprised by love and a bouquet of flowers but realize the energy of cleaning the house for the flowers would just be too much, so single life is good. 

In a world of books that tell women to wash our faces and simply live our best lives and love Jesus and all will be AMAZING, I am thankful for the messy, vulnerable, hilarious, and often painfully honest of the words Rachel Hackenberg and Martha Spong share in their book Denial Is My Spiritual Practice (And Other Failures of Faith). In essay pairings, they write of their faith that is less sure and certain and more stumbling, running, crawling, and on occasion traumatizing. 

While the exact fact situations may not resonate (although my guess is in our darkened closets more of us have been victims of abusers, struggled with parenting, and questioned our assumptions about sexuality than not), the emotions will resonate. Their deft narratives of love, hate, fear, fragility, gratitude, doubt, frustration, joy, and more love are excellent reflections for any person of faith who needs to hear the words of God that life is hard, hurtful, and messy and is glorious, joyful, and loving and all of these are necessary. I deeply appreciate that neither Martha nor Rachel felt compelled to end the essays with tidy resolution. A few find their way to a sort-of ending, but most invite us to reflect, to feel unsettled, and to allow their words to start a conversation in our own souls.

Full and fair disclosure - I received this book early this summer to review, but life is messy and plans fall to the side and I finally got around to reading and re-reading this book now. And I think it’s a wonderful book for Advent. As we sit in the ever-growing darkness of the natural world and sometimes feel like love’s grip on the world is failing, find a moment. Light a candle and breathe a bit. Really breathe, like wear yoga pants so nothing constricts you breathe.

Then read some of the essays. Sit with the feelings they release in you. Remember your own life stories. Maybe read this book a part of a small group and listen to the stories these words birth from one another.

And remember all the stories, the ones from these two women of faith, from the people who read these words, and the stories of our own lives, the ones we shout from the mountains and the ones we keep buried deeply in the boxes of our souls…all these stories…are held in love.

And then end your time with Rachel’s amazing version of I Corinthians 13.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Let Evening Come

Jane Kenyon’s poem Let Evening Come captures the gentle voice of God, the words of the saints, and the wisdom of the matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith reminding us that darkness is as holy as light, that the endings of days and events and relationships and lives are not the absence of God, but the profound presence of an aspect of God we can only see because we are not blinded by the light of our own egos.

Today, the day of Halloween, begins the Autumnal Triduum. I love that phrase. The syllables move us from the long days of summer, the lushness of the earth and the ripeness of all that is creation, to the waning light that is its own slow holiness. The three holy days of autumn - All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, invite us into darkness slowly and easily, as only a human constructed calendar touching the mystery of God can.

Today, All Hallows’ Eve, we dress in costume, we get treats from neighbors, we laugh at being scared. Tomorrow, many Christian traditions will celebrate All Saints’ Day, a day we commemorate and remember the saints of the church, those whose heroic faith serves as a witness to us. Saints are bigger than life because, well, they are saints. And their deaths are infused with meaning in a particular way. They died as a witness to the love of God. Some cared for the sick while all others fled for their own safety during epidemics until they, too, succumbed to illness. Some devoted their lives to prayer by walling themselves in small cells, praying for hours and days and weeks for the world until their dying breath. Some stood on the front lines of love and acceptance, standing between hate and humanity when bullets rang out, saving our lives from the hell of hate while giving theirs. 

When I think of the saints, my grief is a small part of the memory, if it’s there at all. Most of the saints lived long ago, and the stories of their lives of faith and their deaths in faith are inspiring rather than sad. They have become saints of the ages and in that transition, left some of their humanness behind. The more modern saints crack the door open on grief and sadness, with the stories of their deaths. The image of the nun wailing over the bloody body of The Rev. Oscar Romero or the photo of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s children viewing his body as it lay in repose remind us that saints are saints because they were often martyred (a Christian word for murdered) for their faith and that martyrdom was wrapped in the grief and sorrow of those who loved them. 

Sunset at Yellowstone's Lamar Valley
Photo credit Laurie Brock
And then, we are invited into the fullness and the sorrowful beauty of our own grief on All Souls’ Day. November 2nd is a day set aside to let evening come, to be enveloped by grief with hope. But we humans are better at hope than grief. Hope is more fun. She makes us feel good with stories and inspiring speeches. 

Grief asks us to stop moving so much, to stop being busy, to stop explaining that we’re okay, and to sit while evening comes. I’m not sure anyone willingly invites grief to the party; she just shows up uninvited, often suddenly and unexpectedly. And we ignore her until we’ve exhausted ourselves with being “fine” and spill a cup of coffee one day and collapse into snot-filled sobs because we miss our spouse or our parent or our friend who died and we just need to feel sad and wail at the world.

And in that moment, God holding grief’s hand and holding ours, too, reminds us that evening does come and God is there. Always. 

A faithful life isn’t devoid of grief; it recognizes grief is holy and sacred. And on the last day of the three holy days of autumn, we are invited to grieve all that has been lost in our lives - those who have died, but also those things our culture doesn’t invite us to grieve. On All Souls’ Day, grieve the relationships that have died because humans are complicated and our relationships mirror that messy complexity. Grieve our animal companions whose love is so pure it gives us a glimpse of God each time we mourn them. Grieve the changes that have come in life that have shifted us into a new place, even if the new place seems like it might be good, change is still a loss, and loss is still sad. Grieve the friend whose picture shows up in Facebook memories a week after she died much too young and much too soon.

Grieve the violent hate that took the lives of a man and a woman in Kentucky who were murdered because they were Black and eleven people who were murdered at Tree of Life Synagogue because they were Jews. Grieve that hope sometimes feels far away, too far away. Grieve that Matthew Shepard’s parents could not bury their son for 20 years after his murder because they were afraid his grave would be desecrated and our LGBTQ+ companions in life are still afraid for their lives, especially from those who also claim the faith of Jesus.

Fall onto the floor of the earth, let the tears flow. Wipe snot on your sleeve and cry so much you wonder if you’ll ever stop. Wail for all that is sorrowful and heartbreaking in this world. God will be there on the floor with us in our grief and sorrow and wailing. She always is.

Let the holy darkness settle in, and let this holy day give us courage to grieve. Hope will be born soon enough, but for now, let evening come.

Jane Kenyon’s poem, Let Evening Come, can be found here.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Calling Your Soul Home

I’ve been on sabbatical.

You may have noticed, since the action around the blog was almost non-existent for a few months. 

In almost 20 years of ordained ministry, this was my first sabbatical, and I didn’t quite know what to expect. And I was joyfully surprised.

Yes, I traveled. I rested. I cleaned out closets and a few boxes I’d never unpacked since I moved. I rode horses, then rode them some more. I read books that had nothing and yet everything to do with God. And I rode horses again. I rediscovered pray as an act of worship and be-ing instead of just one more thing to do for the clergy resume.

And I realized how little importance most of us give to the commandment about sabbath. My rabbi friends remind me the commandment to remember the sabbath and to keep it holy is the longest commandment as written in Hebrew. That length should clue us in to its importance.

Sabbath isn’t simply not working; it’s a particular aspect of rest. Sabbath reminds us we have work to do in the world, and we also have work to do on ourselves. 

I’ve heard a story about stopping our bodies to wait for our souls to catch up over the years in various incarnations. The basic themes of the story include Anglo explorers or missionaries or archaeologists going through the jungle or mountains or otherwise non-Westernized terrain. They have with them members of the Native culture who are with them. At some point the western men are up early and ready to go and the Native peoples refuse to move. After much cajoling and whining about how the team needs to get going, the Native peoples respond, saying that they walked so fast that they need to sit awhile and let their souls catch up with their bodies. The Western people suddenly realized some deep truth and all is right with the world.

I think the story and example is problematic on several levels, least of which I’ve always heard it used in sermons by white men and the congregation inevitably oohs and aahs as if we’ve never heard that our souls need time to rest.

As if we’ve never paid attention to the commandment to keep the sabbath or the numerous examples of Jesus going away to a quiet place or Mary pondering all these things in her heart or the communion of saints who needed to sit awhile in silence. Not, I think, to let our souls catch up, but to gather our souls back within us. Our souls can move quite quickly, I think. Often faster than our bodies. But they also scatter.

We humans, in our need to be busy and to feel important and to give to everyone who comes knocking, scatter parts of our selves and souls. We also live in a culture where people too often feel entitled to take parts of other people’s souls, even when we hear otherwise. 

One aspect of sabbath is giving ourselves time each week, maybe even each day, to track down our soul. Is it all within us? Great.

Are their pieces of your soul that have been left with parents who are grieving the death of their child from addiction? Did some part of your soul remain with the woman who’s co-worker raped her because her soul is too shattered by violence to hold together for now? Are you weary from the parts of your soul that get broken by the constant news cycle of hate, discrimination, and oppression?

Locate those parts. Know where they are. Call them back to you through prayer, silence, art, or however you find helpful. And trust they will return. Or, if it’s not time for them to return, remind them where home is and that this is not a permanent loan.

The other pieces that have been taken, where are they? Are their people who have demanded pieces and parts of you that you did not want to give, who have not heard your, “no” and keep plowing forward into your life? Women’s souls particularly get strung out in this place, where we see - again - the phone call from a particular person and sigh as we answer it, forgetting we can take a sabbath if needed. 

Where are those pieces of our souls? Who has stolen them, and again, what do we need to do to call them back to us…and what do we need to do to make sure those soul suckers are kept at a safe distance in the future?

When God implores us to remember the Sabbath, God is recognizing that we have a tendency to forget, to ignore, and to disregard the care and keeping of our own souls. Or we commute the sabbath into a day of running errands and cleaning the house and doing all the things that didn’t get done in the busy-ness of the past week.

And God is writing in all the words - DO NOT DO THIS.

Keep the Sabbath. Take dedicated time each week to care for your soul. Be still and quiet. Pray. Do nothing (those who read me enough know I’m a big proponent of holy boredom). Fiddle. Weep. Laugh. Pray some more.

Locate all the pieces of your soul. Call some home. Note where others are and how long they might be away on loan. 

And breathe deeply into all that is. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Write What You Don't Know

I've heard that bit of writing wisdom...write what you know.

And yes, there's truth in that. I never need to write a book about physics.

I also think some of the best writing that is waiting to be born onto the page is that which surprises us with its vulnerability and its insight that we ourselves didn't expect when we started the essay.

If you're interested in learning how to write what you don't know in the realm of non-fiction writing, I'll be presenting a workshop this Saturday, August 18th, at Brier Books in Lexington, Kentucky. You can register here or call the store and reserve a spot. I'll be addressing a broad spectrum of non-fiction writing, from personal journaling to essays for publication to articles for newsletters.

Bring whatever tools you need to write (laptop, journal, paper and pen) because we'll be doing some in-workshop writing.

Join me at Brier Books and let's learn what we don't know.