The Curse of Belonging (and the Invitation to Pride)

I miss the affirmation of belonging that I felt at church. A random Facebook post this morning with a church-familiar phrase evokes profound longing to sit again at the table. And little wonder for by the time it wasn’t, church was the one place in the whole world where I felt safest, most assured that my most authentic self was valued and valuable. Most being the key word for truly every relationship has limitations and one that is both voluntary and employment is necessarily fraught. Now far from the church with the early summer combination of family gatherings, anniversaries, and time to process, I find myself trying to make sense of tables and belonging.

For the weekend I was immersed again in church and family (the origin kind). Time and distance offer perspective and different this time is the view of the systems. In particular I find myself watching patriarchy play and (more importantly) consider the seat in which I used to sit. I begin to get more honest about my role in that place, my privilege but too my culpability. While considering my own loss and gain, I begin to see how my individual choices affected those not similarly privileged. We are individuals, we are also in community. And our choices have consequences that ripple.

Keenly I am aware that though I feel the loss of place, the sense of belonging was always tenuous and conditional. Unspoken were a host of expectations, silent rules being all the more binding. Nice is the one with which I most commonly tangle these days, but looking more closely I see and feel so much more.

To be clear, the benefits from having a place are extraordinary, perhaps most clearly assessed in their loss. But as I survey the ruthless political landscape upon which we find ourselves in this patriarchal season, I wonder at the cost. The pageantry of the church is unquestionable beautiful when done well, but I am keenly aware that simultaneous to the beauty is a concurrent gala in D.C.(Road to Majority) featuring law makers intent on legislating away what limited rights women and queer folk have managed to garner. More locally the Cardinal’s announced that this week that they will celebrate Christian night at the ballpark featuring a notoriously anti-gay (Christian) spokesperson
. The cost of the patriarchy is death to those who resist. All the while none of the hard won rights were ever fully extended beyond whiteness, whiteness the unspoken system dominating the scene. What if I dared to trouble the whiteness in my life?

Strangely I find myself drawn to the quirky teachings of the Apostle Paul in this season of my life, he who tried to make sense with and for those pesky Jesus followers who were not Jewish. These “gentiles” were Roman citizens who had a place at an albeit different table; a place of privilege and belonging in a cruelly divided world. Unlike the Jews already outcasts in the Roman patronage game, the gentiles faced a host of different choices in daring to believe Jesus about God. In a world not unlike our own, Paul challenged the gentiles to let go of their privilege in order to find new life. He talked about salvation, safety, as believers dared to step away from what was known and familiar and (yes) legal into a world which was visibly tenuous.

In this season of life, away from the familiar tables, I wonder anew about Paul’s message and the veracity of his promise. The truth will set us free, he promised in a sometimes shrill and often foibled voice. The previous divisions (jew and greek, male and female, slave and free) no longer have a place; the binaries are out, we are one in the body. An ultimate message of unity. Maybe so. The irony that invitation is made visible apart from the table doesn’t escape me on this quiet summer morning. And I wonder what Paul would have to say about all of that. I’ll add it to a list of my questions for the salty saint.

In the meantime, I hold the wheat as the chaff falls away. Worthy is embracing our truest selves seen most honestly in contrast with the systems that would define us. I consider the power of Stonewall and the early Pride celebrations with the daring displays of patriarchy-denying selfhood shared in community. At its inception, Pride was the creation of new table of belonging. The incorporation of Pride has domesticated the wonderment and brought the celebration into mainstream acceptance leaving many of us wistful for the true if limited rough edges before Pride was considered a profitable commodity.
From these ancestors too I find encouragement to step onto the road less traveled. Here, on this road with brambles and without fanfare, I can rediscover the self that is true and companions worthy of the work.

#NoJusticeNoPride
#BeyondPride

Still Preaching, No Longer Nice

Once upon a time I was a 20-something seminary graduate working with men who were homeless in Phoenix. Senior Bush was president and Senator Kennedy was still preening as an advocate for the downtrodden. I was driving to work and Kennedy was on the radio talking about the importance of a minimum wage that was sustainable and the concession that the wage would apply only to employees after a predetermined training period. I was livid and began yelling at the radio.

The dates have changed but the conversation is the same.

At the time, I knew how grotesque and misleading the conversation. I knew that those MOST vulnerable were those working day labor, those who slept in flop houses and (yep) shelters. Day laborers are “new hires” every single day with no chance of ever getting anything above the most minimum of the minimum wage. In other words, the words were simply that: words. Empty, meaningless, help absolutely no one who was hungry and homeless words. With a new theology degree, a belief that I had some “call” from a higher power, and eyes on the street, I commenced to spend nearly a quarter century preaching about justice.

Fast forward: nothing improved in this nation. In fact we are going backwards at a clip that is simply mind numbing and utterly terrifying. The already frayed and failing safety nets, fundamental to survival in an laissez faire capitalist society, are now simply being removed. This week the current president unveiled his budget plan which cuts after school programs (and meals) for children and Meals on Wheels for seniors. Like, really?

So I spend my early morning penning an article connecting a local shooting with its root cause (hunger) and find myself on FB in a war of words with a privileged white man defending the shooting because he works at a really great food pantry in the area. Um, yeah. His thesis is that because there is at least one bountiful food pantry, no one has an excuse to be hungry.  As if hunger ever demanded an excuse. As if standing in line for a charitable handout is ever a positive experience. As if the bag of discarded groceries is ever the same quality and choice as the bag one would choose.

Can we talk about the food at the pantries, for just a moment? Can we talk about the day-old bread, the yogurt at (or beyond) code date, the scarcity of meat, and the labor intensive bags of (unseasoned) rice? Can we talk about the presumption of food storage options, the presumption of utilities to power stoves and refrigerators? Can we talk about the questionnaires, the ID requirements, the carefully documented visits? All of these are important conversations, but not mine today.

Bottom line: We need food pantries. And we need to share out of our own pantry. But neither are a substitute for justice and our charitable contributions do not not ease the guilt of our intransigent involvement in an economy that quite literally robs food from the mouths of children so that the uber wealthy can eat caviar. Judgment of the one who heads to the nearest supermarket to pick up dinner with a gun (plentiful) instead of a credit card (denied) is misplaced. Judgment belongs with the denial of access to basic life necessities and the proliferation of fire arms, not with guy who went in search of dinner.

But here’s the rub: if we dare to see the problem in it’s enormity and our (white folk) complicity, we quickly become paralyzed. If we see pitiful folk not able to help themselves, we can muster charity, feel good about ourselves, and believe that we’ve staved off hunger for another day. If we dare to see the inequity of the distribution, the fundamental injustice, and the desperate state of things, we are justifiably fearful. If we consider our own abundance (as white folk) in tandem, we cannot help but feel the sting of shame. And if we’re not feeling it, we’re not seeing it.

Now, what to do.

I really believed, as only a 20-something can, that I could preach us out of this sinful place. And trust me, I preached good and long and hard. While I do believe that what ails us as a nation, the original sin that manifests in such grotesque mischaracterizations of justice, is at its root a spiritual problem, churches are (ironically but essentially) unable to address this tap root. By their very definition, churches exist to comfort folk and insofar as they trouble the waters funding and stability are quickly lost. If we are ever to address the root, we (white folk) are gonna be troubled. Very. Even as I preached my heart out (quite literally), I always smiled and tried my best to keep a polite and palatable coating on the most pointed of messages. Always end with a word of hope, always end with something sweet.

This morning as I considered the death of man accused of taking food from a nearby grocery, I am no longer beholden to the church and find myself not very nice. Spicey would be the best face, down right antagonistic is probably closer. But the hunger that I saw as a young woman has intensified in America and is currently reaching catastrophic levels. And this even before the latest budget proposals cut even more safety nets.

So if you come on my page preening about your work at the food pantry, expect pushback. Trust me, my sharp tongue is about as good as it’s gonna get on this road to hell.

If it ain’t justice, I’m not buying.
#resist
#StormTheBastille

 

 

 

Hunger in America

Last night in St. Louis a man went to his local Aldi store and never came home. Apparently he was attempting to leave the store with food for which he hadn’t paid. A security guard tried to stop him. The man showed a gun and tried to leave, the security guard persisted and then fired a gun. The man is dead.

The investigation and report will center around the guns.

Unfortunately the conversation won’t be about the proliferation of guns. That’s a conversation we need to have. If EITHER the man or the security guard had been without one, there would be no blood on the pavement. No, we won’t talk about the militarization of the police and now even the armed rent-a-cop services. Instead we will talk about the he-said-she-said of who showed and/or pulled whose first. Quite frankly, in the heated moment that ended in bloodshed, with testosterone and adrenalin racing, the finer points are all but lost. Now it’s just a blame game.

But I’m still back at the alleged crime.

This wasn’t a hold up. This wasn’t a break in. This was a man trying to get food to eat. One witness said that it was “meat” and I found myself wondering if that makes any difference. Is it a larger offense to steal a steak than a loaf of bread? Would the guard have been less likely to persist if the man had taken Ramen?

Where my heart is stuck in my throat is the bitter truth that MANY people in America are HUNGRY today. With inadequate (and sometimes no) money to buy groceries, even at Aldi.

And do we really want to live in a world in which the consequence for stealing* dinner is death?

(*I use the word stealing hesitantly because fundamentally I believe that the fruit of the earth belongs to the creatures of the earth. Theft is when the oligarchs hoard the food and dispense it in limited supply while the people starve. I would contend that the food belongs to the people. But that’s another story for another day.)

In the opening scene of Disney’s Aladdin there is a chase between a hungry youth who’s taken a loaf of bread from a vendor (without payment) and an enforcer who is destined to destroy the youth. Watching the scene with my babies (20 years ago?), I was still in the negligent-naivete that our community was free from that brutality, that we were somehow enlightened. (White supremacy much?) The cruelty in the film was for me palpable and at odds with the upbeat music, but I consciously took solace in my ignorant ideas.

Recent life experiences have disabused me of the naiveté. I know that hunger is all too real, and for people whom I love. I know that the state (in any number of costumes) is ready to pounce at the slightest misstep to shed blood and/or fill for-profit prison beds (21st century slavery). I didn’t need last night’s horror to prove the point.

I awake this morning and write about it, though, for any who still might be sleeping. The hunger stirring in this land isn’t hypothetical and it’s not relegated to philosophical discussions of liberation. People are hungry.

Excuses are just that.
#StormTheBastille
#resist

When Less is More

Sometimes less is more.
Sometimes one is enough.
Sometimes the still small voice beckons from deep within.

And this too is very good.

The morning is quiet and I ponder what can be heard when the pace slows. I see the tree still barren even as the earth warms. I hear the rhythm of the washing machine as it cleans up the mess. I notice the anxiety that pops up from the still small space.

This anxiety is part of who I am. It is the energy that makes one drink too many and the bottle not enough. It is the insecurity that makes small talk painful. It is the frightened child who wants to be perfect, and perfectly quiet. This anxiety matters, so I listen this morning.

The world is scary now. In truth it has always been thus. The color of my skin and the situation of my birthing provided privilege that largely shielded me from the most potent portals of evil. But the seed, that fragile place deep inside me that is prey for the tap roots of evil, this is not eradicated with privilege. In fact it is nursed and nourished in places of privilege, my insecurity is the necessary hook for “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (bell hooks) to thrive. And thrive it has.

The urgency of this time is clear, all hands on deck. Yet never have I felt more impotent than as I face the gravity of the evil that confronts us today. In that sentence I see the role that whiteness plays. Once upon a time, when I saw so much less but held the microphone, I felt powerful. Letting go of the microphone, I see so much more but now feel the powerlessness. Discovered, if one dares, is a place of humility, a recognition of limits; perhaps this can be a heart and mind more open to faithful next steps.

Prayer Vigil in Ferguson. Photo by dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Pausing to honor the breath, allowing the anxiety to release, the next right step that is mine will emerge. One tiny step at a time. For the tide to come, each molecule of water must yield to the movement of the whole. Yielding is perhaps the most important work of all.

Relinquishing that which has provided a faux sense of power (uniform, title, microphone, standing), allowing myself to feel the impotence and yet still breathe, this is the call. Here I discover, again and again, a power beyond my own in which I can trust with that scared little monster deep inside. Here she can finally come out and (wtf took so long!) grow up. Here there is healing and, god willing, release from the snares.

Feet firmly planted, anxiety acknowledged, let the footed prayers commence.

Returning to the Water

When I left the church, I was gifted with a story. The story was of a child leaving her beloved playground and heading, alone, toward the river. The metaphor was rich and one that has continued to unfold with new meaning over time. Not surprisingly I have avoided the two most salient pieces: river, alone.

In fairness, all I had known for all of my adult life was church. It was my family, my social circle, my profession, my meal ticket. Church was life. And walking away from church was the most painful (and graceless) thing I have ever done in my life.

A year ago, a dear friend challenged me to start a new church. I held the call, felt it’s familiarity. For a full year I have looked at this call, prayed, talked with others, wondered aloud, started, faltered, prayed more. Recently I met with another friend who suggest that I spend a month in prayer (the infamous 40 days). I fancied Nehemiah’s writing of the vision and imagined that I would emerge with my own.

As the 40 days came round and I found myself still empty handed I felt cheated. And then I saw what was sitting inside me all along. The story. The story given to me, almost five years ago now, was the story of leaving the playground and heading to the river alone.  Not building a new playground. Not replacing my old cohort with a new one. But going to the river, the source itself, by myself.

As I look back over the past four years, I realize that I left the playground and at times ventured to the edge of the water. Most of the time, though, I have sat in the woods and sulked. Transitions suck. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Holding the challenge from my friends pushed me from lethargy; either build a new playground or return to the story. The more I avoided the story, the more I worked on a new playground, the more befuddled I felt.

What I knew to be true as I first left the playground is that the playground is faux. The river and the forest that surrounds it comes from the earth itself, it is real and sustainable. And harsh. People die. The evil that we wonder about and script on the playground plays out with harsh abandon at the river’s edge. Also true is the intoxicating power of fresh air. The source of life itself is nowhere more apparent than at the water’s edge.

As I gulped in this fresh air, I began to see that as religion functions to interpret experience of the sacred it unwittingly provides a veil. Life lived far from the playground is unveiled, there is slight protection from the elements. PTSD is real for those who pray with their feet. The lure of the playground, it’s safety and conformity, is understandable.

But the river beckons.

What I know to be true as I stand against the rough bark of the tree is that I can’t go back and, at long last, I think I am ready to go forward. My life is now is here, at the river’s edge. Without benefit of clergy, liturgy, institution, or external validation save the sound of the creation itself. This is my call, this is my truth.

And I feel as if the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders.
Maybe because it has.

Leaving Church: Praying with My Feet

Enjoying the early morning quiet of a Sunday morning in an empty nest, I am aware of sadness for the losses. The gift of life’s second half is perspective, the curse is the pile of losses that make possible the view. My journey may have more or less than yours, but all of us have stories to tell.

In this sacred space, with the sound of my dear one sleeping, the birds singing of coming spring, and warm coffee with milk, I am also aware of healing as life unfolds on a path quite unexpected. Despite our best laments, the sun rises and time marches on. It’s been more than two years since I left the church, and I realize that grief has been replaced by wistfulness. After a quarter century of Sundays dominating the week, I savor this moment of quiet and take note of that which no longer catches my breath.

Curious is the role of justice work, indeed civil disobedience, that preceded my time in seminary and has come back into my daily routines. Throughout my seminary days, I fancied that my call was to prophetic witness and in my ordination even chose the text from Luke’s gospel quoting Isaiah. But almost immediately I became a servant of the church, my bread and butter about filling pews, organizing potlucks, making flyers, and meetings.

In my last years in the church, I was passionate about expressing a theological frame that was itself progressive. Often we find socially liberal churches with traditional theology (or the reverse). I suspect this is somewhat inevitable for white folk in America because the texts and traditions that we have adopted were written by and for communities oppressed. There is a dissonance inherent in our reading and a need to do critical (self reflective work) unless we flatten them (read: impose tradition). I was jazzed about working to articulate a theology that was relevant, challenging, and empowering. The path was pretty much unchartered and at points contentious, but worth the effort. And it was great fun, until it wasn’t.

The point of parting is still painful. The words spoken, the letters shared, the allegations levied; these haunt. Cruel, but without which I would not have released my grip. Perhaps I grieve the necessity (my grip) as much as I grieve the series of events themselves.

As I sit on this quiet Sunday morning drinking coffee, the sun now full in the sky, I see the path that is mine today.

Prayer Vigil in Ferguson. Photo by dcarson@post-dispatch.com
Prayer Vigil in Ferguson. Photo by dcarson@post-dispatch.com

While my gratitude has many layers and covers a wide berth of life experiences, as I ponder that which is sacred this morning I am mindful of all that I’ve seen and heard and felt on the streets in #Ferguson. I’ve learned more of what it means to be white, and the importance of #whitefolkwork if we really care about justice. I’ve met Jesus in any number of incarnations, Black of course, and often queer and usually a woman. As I’ve prayed with my feet, I’ve learned that my words get in the way and I’ve had incredible opportunities to listen. The veil is lifted as the sacred dances in the street.

The early morning light is now gone and the busyness of the day calls. There are lesson plans to gather, laundry to start, and a protest to attend (#BlackBrunch).

Church, like prayer, comes in many forms.

 

Church Shopping Begins: Not White, Gay Friendly, Theologically Past Liberal

Today I find myself at a bend in the river that I didn’t see coming.

Our lives were blessed last week with two very precious daughters ages 9 and 10.  For the past year we’ve been planning, taking classes and filling out paper work to become foster parents. And then we waited. When we got the call that Niah and Nae would be coming to live with us, it happened so suddenly that we are still catching our breath.

For one thing, we assumed that our children would be boys. The initial false-start calls had been about boys, white boys. It is mostly boys that are in the system. When we got the call about girls, we were both surprised and delighted.

For another thing, as is often the case in foster care, the children were forced to move without time to gather their belongings. The move for children means a total loss of everything material, and a scramble for the new family to build a wardrobe and the rudimentary trappings of life.

The most surprising piece for me, however, is how protective I suddenly feel for two young African American girls pulled from a world of extended family and tossed into a sea of well intentioned white folk. Social worker, therapist, school principal, and moms – all white women. Everyone is working together and truly impressive in their intention and commitment, but at the end of the day, we bring what we have and I fear that we’re missing a major piece.

As I stood in line with the girls at one of our family’s favorite haunts, Ted Drewes, I experienced in a new way the almost total whiteness of the crowd.  Reminiscent of my coming out experience, I was nonetheless surprised by the experience of otherness. For me, this is an experience that I sought and for which I prepared, for our girls it is not. I looked into their faces expecting to see delight as we partook of the treasured frozen custard, instead I saw distress and heard, “Can we eat this in the car?”

Safely in the car with my dear one in charge of music, the car rocked with girl power dancing and I knew. We need to find at least one community where faces of color are dominant and strong black women are smiling back into the faces of these precious children. But where? I am theological past liberal, having dispensed with the trinity and holding my own with the Friends (Quakers) probably because there are so few words. I suspect my theological qualms are more problematic even than our two-mom family configuration. Nonetheless, I need to swallow my theological attitude and find a church where we can dance as the children (and spirit) lead us.

I posted my query in Facebook: Need to find: racially diverse (not-white), gay friendly, theologically *very* liberal church in St. Louis. Recommendations?

The answers were heartfelt and precious, but illuminating. Several folk recommended a number of really wonderful United Methodist communities.  I think in every case, the churches are pastored by white clergy and in no case are these clergy allowed to honor our family. UMC clergy who dare to preside at same-gender marriages are actually charged and even dismissed from the ranks. While it is heartening to hear of local communities who stand in welcome, I have no desire to participate in an institution that is struggling to see me as fully human.

One friend pointed out the prophetic nature of the query and I pause to consider. Maybe so.

Or maybe it is time to turn the prism. If what our family needs is a place of gathering not headed by white folk, this white woman needs to stop pushing against the current and flow with the river around this bend.

In fairness, the biblical narrative sounds different when preached from a place of oppression. The story was written by and for oppressed communities as a word of both of hope but also of resistance.  Though I had wearied of the story preached from within the affluence of the ‘burbs, I was moved by it’s power in response to the modern passion of Trayvon Martin. Quite frankly, who we are dramatically changes the words we share, regardless of our intent. And today we need to find a not-white preacher.

The girls told me what clothing they needed and I ran around yesterday to find it. This morning we’ll start the arduous but important journey that so many families have faced: church shopping. We’ll start with a United Church of Christ community led by an African American, there are (I think) three in our metro area.

And I’ll watch the girls feet to see if they dance as I learn to follow.

Snow Days Three

Snowmaggedon came at the close of our winter break, unexpectedly extending our vacation by three days. Three is the number of perfection and as I sit snuggled on the couch pondering tomorrow’s return, I find myself grateful for the reframe that these days have given.

Perhaps I should come clean and admit that I did nothing of import for three days. I didn’t. I enjoyed a Downton Abbey marathon (every episode of three seasons before indulging in this season’s opener). I crocheted two hats, two scarves, and a bunch of squares for a maybe-afghan. I stared at the snow and considered the contrasting colors visible from the warmth of my front window. Today I spent the better part of the day doing lesson plans, organizing a new online gradebook, and researching for a new unit; but before this brief burst of energy I spent three full days staring at the snow while my mind and heart cleared.

In my own defense I would point out that the winter break began on December 20th, so we jumped from school routines into holiday ones. Cleaning, shopping, cooking, wrapping, and baking quickly filled the space in my heart and mind that school had occupied. Our adult children filled the house with laughter and I paused to notice the gratitude I felt but as soon as the wrapping paper was cleaned up, I was back to the work of planning for the next semester.

By Friday afternoon, my lessons were complete, computer links checked, and copies made. After a Saturday commitment, I had planned to have a day of sabbath on Sunday before returning to school on Monday morning.

But on Sunday morning the snow began and one day turned into two and then three. For reasons that are unclear (and irrelevant I suppose) I spent each of these luscious days in sabbath and on the couch. At the end of the third day, I was out of red yarn and ready to return to the world. Which came first is uncertain.

As I think about returning to my classroom tomorrow, and spending the day with children who are not in the rhythm of being together, I realize that the peace that attends me is different than that I felt last Saturday. Although anxiety sits in my gut, my mind is no longer racing. My heart feels the tension but holds it gently, now is the moment.

Sabbath is a spiritual practice that is rooted in an understanding that in order to be at one with the source of life we need to let go of our busyness, relinquish our lists, and allow our minds to reset. I don’t do this very well. And the more I try, the more elusive such a state of openness becomes. Given the number of hours that most of us spend in front of computer screens, I’m guessing that the struggle is a common one. To have stumbled into this sabbath was incredible gift.

Three days is enough. After three days fish and company stink, and likewise even Downton Abbey looses its charm. It was after three days that Jesus and Lazarus and Moses all made their re-entry and so must I. Yet just as they were changed by their time away, I come back to the world with a peace that is new.

And it is very good.

Sweet Possibility and Aged Sorrow – A New Song

Quietly drinking coffee on a Sunday morning, I notice an important silence. In my swang song from church life, music was central.  Drinking in the solitude, I ponder the silence.

Music and those who share it have played a significant role in touching the tender places in my soul for most of my memory. When I fell in love with Jesus at church camp, it was the campfire songs with Mike and Heidi that beckoned.  In college I spent hours and more singing with my friend Beth while she strummed her 12-string guitar, our songs focused on the (Jesus saves version of the) spiritual quest. Church music was similarly important over the years but admittedly less compelling, most often carrying me just shy of that tender place where the soul touches the sky.  A notable exception was church music with my hero at the keyboard.

My hero was a classically trained musician. She was both gifted and practiced, but it was the twinkle in her eye more than her understanding of chord structures that made magic.  When asked, she would smile and say that her years playing in bar bands were invaluable in leading church music. Maybe so. Whatever the case, when she sat down at the keyboard, I found myself singing from that very tender spot.  And smiling. Blessed to share many years together, comfortable with the feeling of soul touching sky each Sunday morning, I grew and stretched and changed more than a little.  Some changes had push back, others catapulted me forward, but always the singing on Sunday mornings put my heart back in order.

For more years than I can count we shared a running joke about our work at church, that whether we stayed or left we did so together. But as is the case with all jokes, the humor points to a place of vulnerability. As I sit now without the music, finding contentment in a wonderland made possible by its grace but without its presence, I have to confess that I do not know where the music stopped nor why.  I remember tension and harsh words and unimaginable conflict, but I suspect that the music stopped before all of that. Only clear is that we are no longer in the same place and living life on life’s terms means doing so without a hero.

Recently I was privileged to sit in a church building and sing songs.  The experience was pleasant save the painful memory that it touched.  Awkward and slightly off-key I followed the musician, painfully aware that I was no longer at one with the sound, no longer upheld by the rhythm, no longer dancing with the wind. Rather than being at one in the moment, the moment pointed to place of loss and I wept. My instinct was to reach out for that which once was but the pathway is not open.  The gift of this yearning is not retrenchment but rather a reminder to dance with the rhythm that is now. External songs may join, inspire and strengthen but always the rhythm must be found within. Lest I miss the opportunity, I honor the gift of the instinct as I let it pass unanswered.

Taoism teaches that our pain is commensurate with that to which we cling. Given that impermanence is inescapable, true happiness is attainable only as we learn to hold with open hands allowing the bird to both land and alight at will. The beauty that graced my life as I sang with Beth in college was unsolicited gift and, as we graduated, left simply and without shame. Without the structure of planned passages, the losses that life brings sometimes get kabobbled in unhelpful ways and such was the essence of my loss of church.  The more we seek to keep things the same, the more the winds of time twist our grip and destroy what was once cherished. Such contortion is the essence of conflict, church and otherwise. Attempts to cling to the familiar drive wedges where bridges would otherwise gracefully sway. Nostalgia blinds us to the beauty of the moment as we reach into the mythic past. Today is imperfect but true, and only in this moment can we dance with the music that is our own.

This morning I watch the wind dance with a forgotten summer toy still hanging in the backyard.  The dance is unseemly but nonetheless bears witness both to yesterday’s unfinished business and to the present beauty of the breath; the contrast of emotions providing harmonic convergence. The grayness of this late December morning would be uninspiring were it not for the quietness of the day that allows the dance of the branches to be visible, a beautiful melody in minor key. In the movement to this passage of life I’ve tasted the giddy bliss of new love and the searing pain of loss, the dance of potentially conflicting emotions has become strangely comforting.  As I watch and ponder, I become aware that it is a new rhythm to which my feet now move. New and yet more primal than any that I’ve heard before, sweet with possibility and yet rich with aged sorrow, this is my song.

And it is very good.

A Quiet Sunday Morning at Home

For all of my adult life, Sunday morning was synonymous with church. For most of my 30 adult years, the church has been the place of my employment as well as my community and also my worship center. The church has been the organizing center of all of my relationships, earthly and otherwise. Just a few short months ago, however, I went to church for the last time. Sunday morning now looks much like Saturday, but with a slightly different rhythm.

I didn’t set out to leave church all together. I retired from professional ministry and with prejudice. I was tired by the effort of being religious in an increasingly not-religious culture. I was crabby from the internal recalcitrance which made the necessary movement nye on impossible. Leaving the employ of the particular church community meant, by definition, finding a new one; which proved challenging in a state of disappointment. In the interim we visited a couple of communities that we enjoyed and respected, but pretty soon settled into the alternative – quiet Sunday mornings at home.

In the quiet, at my desk, I notice the greens and blues that dot the sky and feel the serenity possible in life abundant. I listen to the rhythm of the clock ticking behind me, like the waves that lap on the shore, endless and reassuring. I sip the warm milky coffee, noticing the nurture of familiar taste sensations, grateful for my beloved who prepared it.

Life is good. Life is full. Even this life without church.

But what is missing? For surely after all of the many Sunday mornings dressed up and singing in unison this solitude must represent a lack of some sort. And though there are no doubt missing pieces, a more fundamental truth may simply be that difference is value neutral. To point out that experience A is startling different than experience B is not to suggest that A is better than B, or vice versa. The rhythm of my Sunday mornings is remarkably different than that to which I had become accustomed, but I do not sense one better than the other… simply different.

I confess to missing the sensation of community that I experienced, pastoring with one community for 16+ years. I knew the babies, sat with the families in the waiting rooms, watched the seasons come and go with many precious people. I miss the connection and I miss the friendships. But this loss is one that was inescapable as I moved out of leadership. Definitionally I was required to move away from the particular. The only question was whether I would (or will yet) choose to find another community of faith.

Part of my reluctance is a tenderness around theological ideals. While I believe Jesus about God and embrace fully the wisdom tradition that he embodied, I find traditional Christian worship language grating. Crosses, instruments of death and torture, do not comfort my spirit but rather invoke fear. While our myths suggest life beyond the gruesomeness, too many crosses still burn as warnings on front lawns and loom as gate posts at the edges of communities that wish to keep my kind out. Similarly prayers that link Christ to Jesus without thoughtful exegesis offer a triumphal message which would be trite were it not for the continued imperial power implied. Believing Jesus about God, I find that I cannot faithfully embrace the tradition that bears his name.

I yearn for the kind of theological message offered by the Charter of Compassion initiative, the message of inclusion that looks for our common ground and our communal good. This is the message that we sought to share where I once labored, but it is a message that is seen by Christians as Christ-lite and feared by the the secular community as a bait-and-switch. I continue to believe that it a message that is worthy and relevant, but I see few opportunities for sharing the experience in community.

My spirit these days is nurtured in solitude where I reflect upon the lessons that the children have shared. My spirit is nurtured around 12-step tables where we do our best to share what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now; using the tools of the program as we share our stories. My spirit is nurtured in silence with a small group of Quaker friends who accept the interloper without judgment. My spirit is nurtured in the blessing of intimacy with my beloved. And it is very good.

As this Sunday morning unfolds with coffee and quiet and the familiar feeling of the keyboard beneath my fingers, I am grateful for the ability to hold the yearning, the loss, and the beauty of the present moment all together and feel peace. Serenity is holding gratitude for the many years in community while reveling in this present place of solitude without reaching for tomorrow’s unopened door. For these shards of serenity, most of all, I give thanks.