Is that REALLY you, God? It’s me, Margaret*

July 27, 2013

Hosea 1: 2—10; Luke 11: 1-13; Colossians 2:6-19

First Baptist Church, Worcester, MA

July 28, 2013

Her name was Yafna Garcia, but known on the streets as Millie. In a heartbreaking blog post, the photographer Chris Arnade describes Millie, a prostitute that he came to know as he photographed her and others in Hunts Point, in the Bronx, in New York City. Millie died on January 6 of this year, a few days after collapsing on a bench at the Tub and Tumble laundromat. She was 41 years old.

Arnade tells us that no one claimed her body from the morgue. Not her mother, nor the man who may have been her father. Not any of her 13 siblings. Not her street husband, nor any one of her 4 children. None of her friends. No one who knew her from Hunts Point.

According to the medical examiner’s report, Millie died of bacterial endocarditis of the tricuspid valve, the result of intravenous drug abuse. In other words, some bacterial infection entered her body via a heroin injection that she gave herself, likely using a dirty needle. It migrated to her heart and killed her.

Credit: Bryan Costin, used with permission

Credit: Bryan Costin, used with permission

Several months later, her body, still unclaimed, was sent from the morgue to City Cemetery on Hart Island. As Arnade writes, “Inmates from Rikers Island placed her body in a wooden box made by other inmates. She was placed in a massive trench (70’ x 20’ x 6’) joining roughly one million others that lay beneath an empty field on a small island two miles from the shores of the Bronx.”

It seemed that no one even knew that Millie had died and so Arnade took it upon himself to share the news with those who maybe – just maybe – might want to know. He recounts the fears expressed by others who live as Millie lived. “Pepsi cried, not just for the death, but because, ‘they buried her like a stray dog. I hope to God and pray that I don’t get treated that way.” Michael cried, too. “Honestly? I know she is in a much better place than we are.”

During a visit last summer, Millie, after some prodding, told Arnade her dreams. She wanted her kids back, because in order for that to happen, it would mean that she would be free of the heroin that had such a grasp of her. “I am tired of this life,” she told him. “Tired. You can only do this so long. We say it doesn’t hurt. It does.”

Millie’s is the story of whoredom. The real one, not the one so metaphorically and/or glossily given to us in what is supposedly the word of God to Hosea:

The Lord said to Hosea, “Go take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (Hosea 2:1)

Some man from the street took Millie as a wife. Some man did the same of her mother. Between the two of them, they bore 18 children. Eighteen children of whoredom. Twenty-odd people trapped in a horrid world of drugs and prostitution; a world where your dead body goes unclaimed by a single soul; a life that surely – when it finally ends – finds some mercy, even if that mercy is nothing more than the end of that life.

Now I don’t know about you, but me, I find it virtually impossible to believe that God could or would ever utter such words to anyone, regardless of the bigger message that’s perhaps being conveyed. Biblical scholars tell us that the story of Hosea’s marriage to the prostitute Gomer, her subsequent infidelity, his discipline against her and her children (some his, some fathered by other men), well this is all supposed to show us how God deals with Israel when Israel turns to harlots – whores – in other words, other gods. The vengeance that follows, the bloodbaths described, is reminiscent of the worst kind of blockbuster zombie movie or worse, of the very real godforsaken existence that Millie and others on the streets of so many streets all over this world live.

God forsaken.

These are the passages of scripture, the records of our faiths, and the history of our Judeo-Christian background that surely make it pretty darned easy to claim that religion has to be one of the most pathological institutions that humanity has ever dreamed up.  These stories are the kinds that any loving parent would never let his or her children read, let alone believe in. This vengeful, wrathful, callous, and despicable God is hardly anything we would ever wish to worship.

Fortunately, of course, we Christians can always opt for that easy jump over to the New Testament, where we can wrap our theology around that loving god, the one who sent us Jesus as a demonstration of love for us; Jesus to be executed on a cross on our behalf, but as a sign of redemption and grace and … well … love. The sacrifices of love.

The problem, of course, is that our jump isn’t really all that easy. There supposedly aren’t two gods, but just one. Jesus doesn’t even exist as Jesus without the connections to the story of the God of Israel. They’re all tied together, folks. And what… what are we to ever do with that?

It’s a conundrum, a quagmire the likes of which General Petraeus could probably never even imagine. There is no one answer and there is no right answer. And there is hardly any sweet sounding, sound bite theology that can be spouted by anyone standing behind any pulpit, be he a bestselling preacher/author speaking from a televised megachurch pulpit or be she me, a one-time ordained minister turned librarian, speaking from behind this simple lectern in this warm fellowship hall this morning.

When I shared this passage from Hosea on my Facebook page the other day, accompanied by a few editorial comments, I received some pretty funny replies regarding the challenge of making a sermon out of it. Landy reminded me that I was not bound to preach on the lectionary reading. Tom did the same when I joked with him that he purposefully opted out of preaching this week, just to avoid this text. But to me, there’s something to be said for the lectionary – there’s something to be said for working your way through the entire Bible over several years. And when you’re called upon to preach, there’s something to be said for stepping up to the challenge of finding a message of God in one of the most godless passages.

And so I did. You may or may not agree with me, but here’s the message I find in this Scripture:

It is not the word of God.

Not even metaphorically. It is a story made up by some men, some long time ago, to explain both the history they were a part of, as well as to solidify a code of beliefs that they held.

Now before you run me off as a blasphemous heretic, let me share a bit more. PLUS, remember that I came upon my theological education and my ordination in a tradition and a time when women were not exactly welcomed with open arms by the overwhelming majority of church folks. I was raised and educated and ordained a Southern Baptist minister. In other words, I’ve been called those names, and worse, before. So give me a few more minutes and then … well, you can take what I say for whatever you think it’s worth.

Let’s do a jump over to the New Testament now, not so much to talk about the loving god versus the vengeful one, but rather to listen to the words of Paul to a young church in the town of Colossae:

“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2: 16-17)

The substance belongs to Christ.

Paul’s letter was a warning against false teachings. The church at that time, much like every other time in its history, sat squarely in the midst of countless traditions, beliefs, philosophies, and understandings of earth and heaven, life and death, and what it meant to be a person of faith. Paul the human, just like we humans, just like the humans that made up this church in Colossae, was trying to reconcile all of these differences and what I hear him saying is this, “The substance belongs to Christ.”

At the heart of Jesus’ teachings, we all agree, is that when we act out of love, real love, then we become really the best that we can ever be. We become our best and most true selves. And most importantly, we demonstrate the truth of God.

If you subscribe to the belief that Jesus represented – or represents – God’s message to humanity, then you surely believe that God is, first and foremost, love. Personally, I believe that God is only love. Nothing else. Well, perhaps Love with a capital “L”.

I hope that you don’t hear me proclaiming a simplified message, one that reduces our faith to a pop song or a Coca Cola commercial. What I’m saying couldn’t be further from that. We often hear that we live in a world of information overload and when it comes to religious belief and faith, well, there is no exception. When it comes to faith, when it comes to church, we are at no shortage whatsoever for rules and tenets, doctrines and dogmas, opinions and attitudes, and people of every walk of life to tell us which of these are real and true and most important to believe and follow. Heck, I’m standing here right now doing that very thing!

But in the midst of all of that noise, let us at least hear that one sentence that Paul wrote to the Colossians: The substance belongs to Christ. Argue if you must over which festivals to celebrate and how to celebrate them. Argue over which rituals are most important. Argue over which music is best. Argue over how to spend – or not spend – an endowment. Claim whatever you wish along these lines, but despite whatever we claim, the substance of our faith belongs to Christ.

Our church is currently going through a period of purposeful transition. We have people committed and teams in place to help us figure out who we are now and who we want to be in the days ahead. We’ve got opinions aplenty. We’ve got people in lots of different camps. We’ve got people who feel that our decisions are absolutely critical to our continued existence and we’ve got people who couldn’t give a wit about what happens next. And for all of us, for each of us, what matters most? Bottom line? The message of Jesus. The substance belongs to Christ and the message of Jesus, the heart of our Christian faith, is love. Nothing else.

In his book, “What’s Right With the Church?” written some 25+ years ago now (back in my seminary days), William Willimon writes:

The church is simply one more example of God’s extravagant, creative involvement in this world. … For reasons we can’t explain, God wants the church. … From time to time we get the erroneous impression that God wants us to be builders of the church rather than custodians of what God builds. (But) in our better moments we know better. (p. 44)

So I ask you, and myself, what would God build? What is at the very essence? What is the very substance of the thing? Paul says it is Christ. I say that it is love. Maybe we’re saying the same thing.

How does this tie back to the passage in Hosea? For me, such passages are reminders of the times, those not so better moments, when we forget what is better. They represent our miserable and failing attempts to explain our own behavior by ascribing it to God. We do it all of the time. We can see examples of it every day; from the psychotic ramblings of a serial killer who murders because god told him to do so, to a nation’s organized bombing of another country because it believes to be on the side of right. From flag-waving Christianity to Israel’s unwavering claim to a God-given piece of land, we’re together in this behavior. And I dare say that it is not our best behavior. Not by a long shot.

Neither is our society’s turned-back towards failing schools and hungry children, homeless people on our streets, money made on the backs of others, and health care that is available to some, but not all. A nice house, a good job, a bank account and investments for retirement; filled pews, large buildings, busy church staffs and committees with waiting lists of people wanting to join them; none of these are signs, in and of themselves, that we live with Christ as the substance of our lives.

So what is?

Kate Braestrup is a chaplain with the Warden Service in Maine. You may have read her memoir, “Here If You Need Me.” It’s a difficult book to read, not just because it presents cases of death and murder in the woods of Maine, but because it doesn’t tip-toe around or gloss over the very difficult question of “Where is God?” in the moments of our lives when it seems love is nowhere to be found. The story of Millie that I shared earlier is tragic because she died without love. None. Where there is no love, there is no God.

Since Braestrup is a chaplain, you might assume that she brings God’s presence into the haunting stories of parents being told that their lost child was found, but sadly too late; to the wife of a man who simply went fishing being told that he won’t be coming home; or even to the miraculous stories of children found sleeping in the woods, awakened by the cold nose of the four-legged half of a trained K-9 unit, and brought safely back to the loving arms of parents who had almost lost hope.

She does see her role for victims, families, and the wardens themselves as significant – and it is – but she also humbly steps aside when recounting how much more often it is the members of the Warden Service, of the other arms of law enforcement she crosses paths, who bring true compassion to the scene. They are the ones, in their actions, who exemplify the truth of God. Love.

In one particularly moving account, she tells the story of a young female college student who was abducted, raped and murdered by another young man from the area. She writes:

For me, Christina’s restoration did not come in the arrest or in what happened in the courts to the man who committed this crime, however important and even grimly satisfying those things were in themselves. Instead, it was in the image of those dear and decent men – Rob, for example, with his quiet walk, his quiet way – moving with swift and loving purpose toward her body where it lay between the trees, bearing with them parenthood and friendship, grief and anger, order and care, and bearing beneath their badges their undefended hearts.

‘We are Legion,’ the demon sneers.

No. We are legion. (p. 180)

In this story, I’m reminded that justice is found in courtrooms. Love is found in the field. I don’t imply that we discount the need for justice, or even suggest that it isn’t sometimes also in our courts, but I do believe it’s important that we remember it is in the stories of love that we find God. The substance of all that we seek and all that we do in God’s name must be love, or else whatever stories we choose to share, preserve, sanctify, and pass down for thousands of years are stories of something else. They are not of God.

And so that is how I consider the Hosea passage. It is also how I consider any and all stories that I hear or read or believe in, when I’m trying to understand if, when, how, or where God is in them. If at all. God gets credit for an awful lot of things that, I’m quite sure, God would just as soon be left out of. In the same way, countless acts of love go unseen as the acts of truth that they are. The truth of the message of Jesus, the substance that belongs to Christ, and the very presence of God in our lives, is Love. May we always strive to act in ways that bring God into this world.

Amen

*The title for this sermon was inspired by the book, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” a classic of young adult fiction by one of the best authors of the genre we have ever had, Judy Blume.


The Lives We Lead

March 31, 2013

“People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.” – James Baldwin

This is the quote that Dorothy Allison chose to put on the opening page of her novel, “Bastard Out of Carolina,” the page that comes before the first chapter, but after the one where she dedicates the work to her mother. Rummaging through a used bookstore last weekend, I came across a copy of this book and bought it. Though I knew it, I’d never read it. It takes place in Greenville County, South Carolina, the locale close to where my own mother grew up.  In keeping with the tone, I should probably say, “Where my mama’s people come from.” This, plus the fact that it’s a continual presence on the American Library Association’s “Banned Books List” was more than enough to want to read it, and so I began this morning with a couple of mugs of coffee and the beginning of the story of Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright. Four chapters in, I’ve no regrets in picking it up.IMG_6925

The Baldwin quote, however, was the reminder of what today is and thus served as the impetus to sit down here in my studio this afternoon and write this post. Today is the last Sunday in March. (Yes, it is also Easter Sunday, but I’m not much of a celebrant of that holiday. It means little to me.) The last Sunday of March is the Sunday when, for many years, I picked up a chip at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that I regularly attended in Portland, Maine – the group that I considered my “home group,” in the parlance of AA. For a bunch of years; the 14th, 16th, 18th, years – the “in between, go along, live life” years – I assumed that today, I would pick up my chip to mark 20 years of sobriety. But I’m not in Portland today. And I’m not picking up that chip.

I was sober for 19 years and about 4 months, give or take. After all of those many days, I took a drink one afternoon last June. I’d share the story of picking up that drink in a meeting, except that for several reasons, I know it’s not the right place for such. For every good reason, AA meetings are about sharing and learning how to stay sober. They are most effective, in my opinion, when they stick to that single purpose. My story doesn’t stay on that track and for someone simply trying to get through a day without having a drink (an important, admirable, and really difficult thing for a number of folks), it’s a message that doesn’t help. But that said, it’s something I felt that I needed to put into words and share here, where over the past years, I’ve shared a lot about the story of me figuring out my path.

Last spring, I made a series of unwise decisions. I chose to open the door on some parts of me, to talk about some things that were of concern in my life, with the wrong person. They were things that I needed to talk about, for sure, but I could have picked a better time, situation, and person to share them with. One poor decision led to a couple more that ultimately led to nothing short of (pardon the expression) a clusterfuck of a mess, internally and externally. You’ve got to wonder why we do these things to ourselves from time to time, why we make decisions and choices that we know full well aren’t the best for anyone, ourselves in particular, but it happens. There we go. Down that road again.

After almost 2 decades of concentrated work on myself, building a life that is more in line with who I am and wish to be, I’ve developed a very full toolbox of skills to help me stay healthy. I know how to sit with myself, to talk to myself, to change the thinking that leads to behaviors that lead to negative thinking that lead to out-of-character behaviors that lead to emotional upheaval that lead to … well, you probably get the picture. Thinking and feeling and behaving are all intimately intertwined, and we can, if we wish, learn a whole host of ways to tackle thoughts, feelings and behaviors within that cycle that help us get back on and/or keep on a healthier path.

I’ve been a good student of these practices, over the years. I learned early on in that 19 years of sobriety, that not drinking was in many ways the easiest part of getting better. Figuring out why I chose to drink instead of deal with the life in front of me was a lot harder. I have been incredibly fortunate to have found a few professionals along the way; a couple of therapists who were excellent in their abilities to help me move emotionally, and a primary care doc who doesn’t believe that medicating someone for depression, alone, is the answer to mental health. After a year of taking a prescribed antidepressant, after I couldn’t quit crying daily in my cubicle and the thought of being involved in an airline crash was kind of appealing, my doctor said, “I do not want to just give you a pill that allows you to get through the days. I want you to be well.” And so he gave me the names of several therapists and I found the right one for me and I began the work of getting better. (This was all a few years ago and if you’re so inclined, you can read the longer version in the “Ordinary Year” tab of this blog.)

It wasn’t the first work, of course. It was just another chapter of work. Life is work, particularly for those of us who live in such a way and in such a society that affords us an awful lot of comforts. It’s ironic, isn’t it? When you live in a society where your biggest concerns are to have enough food to eat, to have a shelter over your head, to not contract some disease that will kill you before you’re twenty, to not be killed or raped or tortured by others who have nothing more to work towards than evil, you really don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to “suffer from clinical depression.” However, when you live in a society that affords you opportunities for education, work, friends and family and relative safety, it becomes incredibly easy to make life difficult. And that’s just what we do. We work at finding every sort of way to make life hard work. And then we get extremely pissed off when we have to do the work to make it not so. If it didn’t make for such a truly painful experience for a lot of innocent folks, the irony would be quite funny.

And such is where I was last spring, toiling away at making things much more difficult for myself than they needed to be, leading myself to a place that all of my “good thinking” tools stopped working. No matter what I tried, I could not get my mind to stop saying really awful, negative, pile-on and beat-down stuff to myself over and over and over. The interesting thing is that I didn’t feel depressed, not in the airplane crash/black cloud sort of way. I was just angry and hurt and really, really mad at myself – and I couldn’t shut up inside my head long enough to think it through and do some positive things to get back on track. So I made a decision. One more decision. There are legitimate arguments to be made to claim that it wasn’t the best decision, but in my heart and my head, I honestly believe it was okay. I would do it again, though in a different way, but given the same situation, I would choose those two shots of bourbon and a coke all over again.

The reason is simple enough. It worked.

My mind quieted of the negative thoughts and I immediately sat down and wrote out pages of thoughts and feelings and words that I needed to share with the person I was closest to in life, but hadn’t. I got the thoughts out of me. Literally. I put them onto pieces of paper, so that they would stop going around and around and around in my mind. It was hardly the end of working through everything – in many ways, it was just a start – but I needed something to open the door and at that moment, the alcohol served a medicinal purpose and allowed that to happen.

When I confessed my decision with my therapist, she said, “That is very normal behavior for most people, but you have a history of the behavior of drinking too much, of drinking rather than dealing with your feelings. You cannot forget that.” And I haven’t.

The science behind whether or not alcoholism is a disease alone that can be diagnosed and treated remains debatable. It isn’t my area of expertise or anything that I’ve studied and/or read enough about to have much of an informed opinion. What I do know, though, is myself. Because I have (and continue) to do the work to know me. I know when I’m healthy, when I’m okay, when I like myself. And I know when I’m not and/or don’t. I know the me that is constructive and creative and gives of myself to make my place in the world a positive, good place. I know when I treat other people and myself in the ways that are best.  I know the me that goes to sleep content and happy, and I know the one who cannot sleep for being so sad and hurt. I’ve lived with both of these people, these parts of myself, for good stretches of time. And I know the one I prefer.

When March 3rd rolled around a few weeks back, Lynn gave me a card to mark the anniversary that wasn’t. She reminded me, as I’d reminded her earlier but maybe forgotten, that without that original date of March 3, 1993, that first 24-hours that started a journey of many sober days, we would not have the life that we have today. I can’t begin to imagine the past twenty years without all of those days. I don’t want to.

I believe that if I did celebrate at a meeting tonight, I’d share that what I learned in my 19th year of sobriety is that I’m not an alcoholic, but that I’m a person who once didn’t want to do the work that I needed to do to be the person that I really wanted to be. I probably needed to be sober for those many years to get to today. I am stubborn and not the fastest learner. I’m grateful that I’ve lived 40+ of my 50 years on the earth in homes and relationships that were healthy and happy. I’m grateful that I’ve endured only one really horrible and life-altering tragedy. I know that I’m fortunate in countless ways.   I know full well that it’s the combination of these things and many more that landed me here in this chair at this desk in this studio today. As they say in those meetings, “I’m here to claim my seat.”

“People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.”


Sketchbooks on Parade

March 17, 2013

I have several sketchbooks traveling the country (and Canada) this year through projects of the The Sketchbook Project (Art House Co-op) of Brooklyn, NY. If one comes to your town, I hope you’ll take the chance to seek it and its many friends on the road trips.

The Memoir Project

500 handwritten books from writers and illustrators around the globe.

  • Brooklyn – June 28-30
  • San Francisco – July 26-28
  • Washington, DC – August 16-18

The Mysterious Maps Tour Mobile Library Tour

The Mystery Maps Tour asks you to make original maps of real and imagined places.

  • Providence, RI – June 13
  • Portland, ME – June 14
  • Montreal, Quebec – June 17

The 2013 Sketchbook Tour

11,000 sketchbooks on the road starting March, 2013. Check ‘em out!
Brooklyn, Austin, Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, Portland (OR), San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Far from the Madding Crowd

July 23, 2012

A Quiet Place: Our sailboat, Grace, moored in Brickyard Cove, Freeport, Maine

Mark 6:30-34; 53-56

First Baptist Church, Worcester

July 22, 2012

It is not a special morning. It is fairly routine. It’s the kind of morning that happens once every couple of weeks or so. It’s the morning when I have some meeting scheduled for 9:00 and I stay late in bed reading and then my dog, Zeb, takes a little longer to do his business during our walk; and then I can’t decide what to wear and I absentmindedly pick out a linen shirt that takes an extra 10 minutes to iron. I finally get ready and get in my car only to realize that I don’t have my ID badge. I can’t get into the parking lot without it, so I climb the three flights back up the triple-decker to our apartment and frantically look for it on my dresser, on my desk, in my jacket pocket from the day before.

Back in the car I have to wait for a line of cars to pass before I can pull out onto Pleasant Street. Then I miss the green light at Park; and then again at Main, and at McGrath, at Franklin, at Plantation, at Route 9. Every light turns red before me. Every pedestrian who can, steps out in front of me. Every driver who can, pulls out in front of me. The parking lot at work is full by now and I’m forced to park on the far reaches of campus.

And so now I’m angry. I’ve sworn at people on foot and people in cars. I’ve called them names. I’ve cursed the traffic light gods. As I pull into a parking space, I notice the time on my dashboard clock – not the time of day, but the time elapsed since I pulled out of my driveway. 14 minutes.

Now here’s the thing… on the days when I remember my ID badge, when I pull right out onto Pleasant, when I make all of the lights, when I pause to let pedestrians or other drivers go in front of me, when I pull into a parking space in the second row… on those mornings which are also not special, but fairly routine, when I note the time elapsed from when I pulled out of my driveway to when I pulled into the parking space, it is – wanna guess? – 13 minutes. Maybe 12.

The point is that it takes me, under any quote-unquote “normal” circumstances, between 12 and 15 minutes to travel by car from my driveway to the University Campus of UMass Medical School where I work. That’s a mean of 13.5 minutes, +/- 90 seconds.

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, time? It dictates our lives like few other things and we collectively suffer the insatiable need to fill it – every cotton picking single last minute of it – with something. From meetings to errands to phone calls and surfing the Internet. To texting to gossiping to driving kids here and there, to planning menus and grocery lists and cooking meals; from eating at our desks to eating in our cars; to Zumba classes and detailed training schedules for road races, to watching talent shows on TV to doing homework begrudgingly to finding the right summer camp; talking while we’re walking, on the phone while we’re ordering coffee, reading emails while we wait in line…

It is GO! GO! GO! Go dog, Go! Because the difference between 12 minutes and 15 minutes is…

3 minutes.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Crowds followed them everywhere, sun up to sun down; always wanting something of them – of Jesus – fix this, heal that, tell us again that story about the shepherd. They had a lot of demands upon them. They had no time for themselves.

And so Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” Perhaps he says to us, “Put down your smartphone and follow me. Follow me up here to a quiet place for a while. Disconnect. Go offline.”

I fear that this message from the Gospel reading too often gets overlooked. It comes, after all, as a prelude to the story of the feeding of the 5,000. It’s just a couple of lines and we hardly see the period of the sentence before reading, “Now many saw them and recognized them” and chased after them and formed the great crowd that eventually had to be fed and had to be healed. It’s this great crowd that we focus upon, the crowd that Jesus looks upon with compassion; the crowd that he sees as lost, as sheep without a shepherd.

If you read this same story in John’s gospel, you’ll see it’s presented much more clearly as a metaphor – Jesus is the shepherd and it’s much less about feeding people with real loaves of bread, and more about feeding them with Jesus, the bread of life. Either way, it’s a great message – whether we’re called to feed people literally or to let Jesus feed our spirits – likely, both – it’s a message to give some attention to.

But rather than rush right over those first verses while preparing this sermon, I settled in on them, because I think that there is something very important in them, a message that you can’t do the latter; you can’t take care of others, teach one another, help one another; you can’t look upon others and the world with compassion without regularly going away to a quiet place, a deserted place, an un-harried place where you can think and meditate and pray; for it’s in the thinking and the meditating and the prayer that we find the energy we need to then return to the world and do all that it requires of us. As Henri Nouwen, the French cleric, wrote, it is “In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It’s where we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; and that the love we can express is part of a greater love.”

Yet, we live in a world that praises busyness much more than quiet solitude. Work makes us busy and being busy makes us important. The cartoonist and author, Tim Kreider, wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times last month that went viral on the Internet. It was called “The Busy Trap” (June 30, 2012) and in it he didn’t hold back when describing his beliefs about how and why we’ve come to cling to this mantle, this “Badge of Honor” of busyness:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness (he writes); obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” He calls it “institutional self-delusion. More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scary book, I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”

His thoughts struck a chord. Funny, I heard him interviewed by Tom Ashbrook on “On Point” last week and Kreider said that he wrote the piece mostly because he was mad at his friends who couldn’t seem to find the time to have a cup of coffee with him. Maybe the reason the piece resonated with so many people is because we’re all a little put off by the busyness of our friends. Maybe we don’t always see it in ourselves, or we don’t hear ourselves saying it, but when someone else says to us that they’re too busy, we think, “Well yes, my feelings are a bit hurt, too. Why won’t anybody come out and play with me today?”

The title of this sermon comes from a novel by the British author, Thomas Hardy that he originally wrote as a series of stories for a newspaper in 1874. Hardy borrowed the line from a poem by Thomas Gray, published more than a century earlier, in 1751, called “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Gray was writing to a friend who had died, reminding him that there is a place beyond the busy, frenzied, madding crowds and their tendency towards meanness and bitterness and violence; it is that place, the quiet place, that helps us stay on course. Perhaps that place for Gray was the country churchyard where he wrote the poem. For Jesus it was “a deserted place.” For Jesus it was also 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism by John. It was the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified. Quiet places, far from the crowds. Without them, we cannot do all that we are called to do in our lives.

But where are they? Where are our quiet places? We seem to want them so much, we want to get away, but we just don’t know how. We don’t know where? Or do we?

Have you noticed the rise in international movements devoted towards slow living? They’re out there. Have you seen more and more stories of yoga classes booming, mindfulness seminars being sold out, stress reduction classes offered, life coaches all around? You know what these things have in common – besides their popularity? They all promote time out. In our society that leads the industrialized world in lack of vacation time, we’re scrambling to find other ways to get what we intuitively know that we need. Whether we’ve heard Jesus’ message before or not, we do seem to know that we absolutely must have some time to ourselves, some time away in that deserted place to rest a while. “A life without a quiet center easily becomes destructive.” Henri Nouwen

When I first thought of this topic and started to put the pieces together for this morning, I thought of the horrible spate of incidents in the 1980s that garnered the phrase “going postal.” Several workers, most notably for the US Postal Service, went on violent rampages in their respective workplaces, killing managers and colleagues. The thought was that their work – the never ending, day after day after day nature of mail – drove them literally insane. When I heard on Friday the horrible story of the young man in Aurora, Colorado, a med school student earning his PhD in neuroscience, so much like a bunch of young people I see every day, I couldn’t help but wonder what drove him to this break of sanity. And knowing nowhere near enough details to even begin to factually state anything, I can only think of this world that we live in – this society that we’ve created – a non-stop pressure cooker to do and to be; to constantly push towards measures of success that are either realistically unattainable OR completely beyond our reach under our current circumstances. We cannot help but become sick.

What happened to that young man, we do not know, but we do know – we empirically know – what happens to each and every one of us when we neglect and/or refuse that quiet place. We get high blood pressure. We gain weight. We develop heart disease. We develop clinical depression. “A life without a quiet center easily becomes destructive” to itself and to others.

It hardly comes across as a warning like some of the other teachings of Jesus, but maybe these words to his disciples were just that. Maybe “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves” was Jesus way of saying, “You are NEVER going to make it in this disciple business unless you take care of yourselves, too.”

You’re not going to make it – not as a teacher or a student, not as a doctor, an accountant, a salesperson, a social worker, a librarian or a minister. You’re not going to make it as a parent, a spouse, a friend, a caregiver or a coworker. Unless you take that time away, says Jesus, you simply cannot do those jobs or fill those roles – not to your best.

Along with being a librarian at the Medical School, I also work as an exercise physiologist on some research with one of the obesity docs there. A couple of years ago, I worked with her on a study where I led some exercise groups for women who were both overweight and depressed. You’re probably not surprised if I tell you that the number one reason people give for not exercising is lack of time. Across the board. You ask anyone if they exercise regularly and for 9 out of the 10 who tell you no, they’ll say the reason is that they can’t find and/or don’t have the time. Time. There it is again.

Where that time goes, for women in particular, is interesting. So many women will tell you – as many in that particular study told me – they don’t have the time to exercise because their time is given to others; to their children, to their parents, to their husbands or partners. They also give time to work, as do men, but it’s this other piece where they leave guys behind. Women, far more, give up their time to others.

The sad thing – the damaging thing – about this trend for women (and men, too, of course) is that same irony that Jesus himself was telling the disciples. If you don’t give yourself the time you need to take care of yourself, eventually you won’t find the time to give to anyone else, either – in the saddest and harshest way – because you’ll be too unhealthy and/or too sick to do so. Maybe Jesus hadn’t read all of the writings of Jon Kabat-Zinn, our resident guru of mindfulness, or have the years of data the Mindfulness Clinic at UMMS has to prove the point, but he surely knew as much – stress will kill you and before it does that, it will keep you from doing so many of the things that you want or need to do for others, and for yourself.

And so I go back to time and the fact that the difference between 15 minutes and 12 minutes is … 3 minutes. Again, it’s a funny thing. Sometimes that 3 minutes seems like forever. Sometimes it’s just 3 minutes. And as we rush through all of those 3-minute segments of our days, what are we doing with them? Do we even notice?

Maybe noticing is where we start. Jesus reminded his disciples to take a break. We can remind ourselves. Some of our young folks and their chaperones are heading off to DC this week. They’re going to immerse themselves, figuratively and literally, in a different environment. Think about it – they might not be going off to that deserted place for quiet – it’s a youth gathering after all – but they are purposefully stepping away from a life that they know, one filled with so much – to something with a different focus. And I do bet that there will be time set aside for them during their stay when they can be quiet. When they can stop and think and reflect and listen. And I say to you now, those of you going, Lindsay gave you journals this morning to take with you. Take them and use them. Write down the things you notice and the things you’re thinking and the feelings you’re feeling.

Fill up every page with words and pictures – I say pictures, too, because I started drawing in my own journals a couple of years ago and it’s an amazing thing to do. It doesn’t matter if you can draw or not. The purpose is to give yourself another way to express yourself. And that’s the goal. Express yourself in your journals so that when you come back home, when you find yourself back in the every day busy life of classes and practices, of church and sports and music and art and volunteering and friends and family and all of the things that fill you up until you about can’t take it any more… you see that journal on your shelf or the table by your bed. And then you can pick it up and you can find your quiet place in it, because you will have to stop in order to look at it. You’ll have to pause.  And then hopefully you’ll see in those pages something that gives you the boost you need; you’ll remember something of the days at IMMERSE that means something special to you. And it will stay with you. And you’ll be better for it.

For those of us who will go to work this week – or errands or meetings or retirement or vacation or doctor’s appointments or whatever fills our lives – we can do the same thing. Maybe we’re not going to an event structured to help us focus on our spiritual lives, but we can make such for ourselves. We can go away for those few minutes here and there as we find them. We can carry a journal. We can take notes. We can take a walk to that place where we, too, can rest awhile.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Whether we are Melville’s Ishmael the sailor or Thomas Gray in a church courtyard; whether we are a young person or adult off for a spiritual immersion, or we’re running late for a meeting that may or may not make any real difference in the grand scheme of things; wherever we find ourselves today in our lives, may we each hear the words of Jesus to “Come away to a deserted place, to rest for a while.” And may we do just that.

AMEN

(Audio for this sermon will be available soon on the website of First Baptist Church, Worcester, Massachusetts.)


If the Loafer Fits, Wear It

July 16, 2012

View from the tent, a most optimal loafering activity.

I’ve been working on a sermon for next Sunday that I’ve titled, Far from the Madding Crowd, and so I’ve been taking a lot of notes on things I read or hear or see related to being busy. A couple of weeks ago, I came across the very popular opinion piece in the NY Times by cartoonist and author, Tim Kreider, The Busy Trap. I won’t annotate or comment on the piece here, but I do recommend you read it, if you haven’t already. It’s pointed, insightful and humorous. Then earlier today, I listened to the “On Point” episode from last week called, “In Praise of Loafering.” Along with Kreider, Tom Ashbrook welcomed the writer and professor, Rick Bragg, who recently wrote an article for Southern Living , The Gift of Loafering.

While I appreciated Kreider’s article a lot and see it every day in my current life, it was Bragg’s thoughts that reminded me of my ancestry. Bragg is from Alabama and he spoke about relatives, friends, colleagues, people he knows who have not lost the ability to loafer. He distinguishes loafering from loafing; the latter is goofing off at work, something seen as an abomination. One loafering, in contrast, is one who sets off to do something with no plan, no expectation, no “to do” to get done. It’s the Sunday car ride. It’s sitting by the lake all day. It’s simply hanging out and taking in whatever it is that comes your way during the hanging.

I say that loafering is in my blood and I say that with a heck of a lot of pride. I will never forget the stories my Aunt Bea, my maternal grandfather’s sister, would tell of getting in her car and driving along on an errand and seeing a road sign that might say, “Nashville 150 miles” and thinking, “I’ve never been to Nashville” and onward she’d go. One day she and my grandmother (or my Aunt Thelma, I forget) showed up at our house after shopping at the Pottery near Williamsburg. This might not seem so unusual except that my Aunt Bea and Grandmother Brittain lived in South Carolina, a good 8-hour car drive from us in those days, AND we lived 90 minutes or so from Williamsburg. They probably riding along somewhere when one said, “Let’s go to the Pottery!” and off they went.  Now that’s gotta be loafering if ever there was such a thing.

I said to others, after reading Kreider’s article, that I was so happy to read someone write that my non-busy life (meaning I live a life where I rarely feel, let alone say, that I’m busy) is not a sign of laziness, but of sanity. Now even more, I’m really happy to know I’m a sane person who also has a real chance to hone my loafering skills to perfection. It’s in my genes.

Bring on the still unplanned August vacation!


How Pictures HELP Say a Thousand Words

July 11, 2012

I was perusing some of my favorite data visualization sites this morning and thought I’d share two videos I especially liked. Enjoy!

The Value of Visualization from Column Five on Vimeo.

Tour de France from Column Five on Vimeo.

Both of these come from the good folks at Column Five, one of those swell companies for which a wannabe designer librarian like me can only dream of working. :)


Ole, Ole, Ole!

April 1, 2012

I have listened to this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert more times than I can count:

Elizabeth Gilbert on Nurturing Creativity

At first, I listened because I felt a resonance with her statement that goes…

… I’m only about 40 years old. I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me. And it’s exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book, right? I should just put it bluntly, because we’re all sort of friends here now — it’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.

I understand that kind of neurosis. Despite never having been mistaken for a genius nor experiencing any sort of success that could be seen as being in the same vein, same circulatory system even, as Gilbert with her memoir, Eat, Pray Love, I have felt the anxiety, the fear, the feeling that I did something pretty well in one instance, and I’ll never be able to do it as well again. More often though, I feel that the best of me is behind me. I feel that often.

In this talk, which I suggest you watch before you read this post in order for the post to make the most sense, Gilbert is speaking of the inexplainable “thing” that happens to people at times, and that in its happening, yields remarkable creativity. Her question is, can you ever capture this thing? Can you harness it? Can you establish some sort of routine or environment that brings it about? She doesn’t use the word, but her question is one that artists and creatives have shared as long as there have been artists and creatives, i.e. “Where is my muse?”

On the fourth or fifth time I listened to the Talk, I found myself focusing much more on the latter part of it. It’s during this part that she equates and/or compares the creative process, or more rightly the creative product, with the Divine. She speaks of artists or writers or anyone seeking to produce something born of a creative place, as people on a mission to catch something. I have heard and read others use the same language to describe it. Rosanne Cash does so in her interview with Krista Tippet. Annie Dillard in her writings on writing. I’ve written a few things in my life that I can look back upon and say to myself, “Did I really write that?” I don’t ask the question with a sense of incredulity, but more of wonder. “Did I really write that?”

The past few days I’ve been engaged in a discussion on a good friend’s Facebook page that grew from her simple “contest” to poke fun at something a relative of hers had said. My friend is a self-avowed, staunch atheist. Her relative is a self-avowed, staunch, fundamentalist Christian. I add those qualifiers on purpose, for I know many people who would call themselves atheists in the sense that they hold no belief in any divine being, but who would more rightly be described in the way Joyce Carol Oates describes herself, i.e. indifferent. Similarly, I know people with very assured convictions regarding their faith, but for them too, these beliefs are simply a given, woven into the fabric of their being, not anything they feel the need to ever talk much about, let alone defend outwardly in any dialogue or argument.

My friend and her relative cannot be described that way. They both hold strong beliefs and they have not a whit of a reservation in sharing them. And thanks to these kind of folks, we can get discussions on Facebook that last for days and with comments that number into the hundreds. Depending upon your own convictions, you might find such an activity as funny or offensive, as disturbing or intriguing, or as either disconcerting and disheartening. Personally, I found it a little bit of all of these, less offensive. I was never offended. And I also found it predicable; the comments of everyone, including myself.

And it was really funny.

And also inspiring.

I found myself drawn in to it. I found a part of me that hadn’t engaged in any theological debate over the issues of women in ministry or the problems of unwavering dogmatism in many years, awakened. I trod it out and took my stabs at trying to somehow say, somehow show, where the problems lie in the arguments people make to defend certain narrow understandings of God or god or anything related to the divine.

And I awoke this morning with the need to watch that TED Talk one more time. I wanted to hear the exact words Elizabeth Gilbert used. How again did she describe the poet Ruth Stone’s creative process? I needed to hear it. I cued it up and … oh yes, it goes like this:

I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone,who’s now in her 90s, but she’s been a poet her entire life and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape.And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.” And then there were these times — this is the piece I never forgot — she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.

(Really, if you’ve gotten this far in reading this post and NOT listened to the Talk, stop now and do so.)

I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert again this morning. I also read Karen Armstrong again. Just a little bit. The introduction to her last book, The Case for God. For me, Karen Armstrong is the clearest voice we have today for explaining the history of the monotheistic religious traditions. She likewise gives the surest argument, solid and grounded, for the existence of anything divine. She wrote this last book, in part, as a response to the modern voices of atheism, the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. They all dismiss her work, as expected, but I’m still waiting for one of them (the latter two, now) to counter her in the same manner, i.e. with the same level of scholarship and objectivity, with the same nod to the history of humanity.

The reason I’m drawn to Gilbert’s description of creativity and Armstrong’s description of the divine is because for me, they strike upon the characteristic and quality of these “things” that I understand best and that I appreciate most. Armstrong traces humanity’s experience of both logos and mythos, and how they were once – and for a VERY long time – held in parallel, held not as opposites, but as complements. They both operated within and throughout the history of us together:

In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition. Logos was forward-looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights, or inventing something fresh. Logos was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos, or “myth.” (p. xi)

Then humanity entered the modern age. The entrance itself is pretty much defined by a rise and/or preference for logic, rationale, scientific understanding, and the subsequent dismissal of myth. One tragic consequence of this, for Armstrong’s and my own belief, is that the monotheistic religious traditions chose to follow suit, and theologians of each began to argue for their faith within the parameters of logos. They, too, dismissed the biggest reason we had religious beliefs in the first place, i.e. to explain what couldn’t be explained. Theologians began to argue with words, because words are the foundation for reason, over experience. They insisted upon describing, defending, and explaining the words of their traditions with more words.

But the experience of the divine is not captured in words. It’s the poem roaring at you across the field. It is the feeling of the song. It is the sound of joy. It is the silence of grief. It is the essence of love. It is the thing that cannot be described with words. It’s the experience of “words fail me.”

As I typed those last two paragraphs, the song “Valentine” by Ruth Moody shuffled across the My Space player running in the background of my morning writing:

I must have been crazy,
Lost in your blood-shot eyes again,
But love she marches in,
And takes us like an army now and then.

I could dissect the words, do an exegesis of them as we’d say in theological circles, but doing so would not describe for you the feeling that I experience when I hear the song. There is Ruth’s voice, the guitar, the words, the mood, the context, the ritual; there is all of this and more. There is all that words fail.

For me, “all that words fail” is the divine. It is why I believe in something that cannot be explained. And I don’t particularly want it explained. I want it experienced.

This is what was missing in the Facebook discussion. It’s what is missing in all of the dialogue that goes around the talk of religion, of whether or not God exists, of theology and atheism (which could never exist, one without the other). It is what leads us to arguments, to misunderstandings, to name-calling, and in the saddest circumstances, to violence. Our dependance upon logic, our necessity for ego, and our dogged determination to understand and explain everything fails us. Just like the words.

I love words. I am a fairly verbose person and I enjoy talking about this topic more than most, but at the end of it all, my 284th comment on my friend’s discussion thread ought to be no words at all. Because words fail us in this debate. Thank goodness.


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