The Still: Fall/Winter 2017

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Lest I forget the small moments on this big journey, I distill my experience in seminary and life every semester or season (e.g. Fall 2016, Spring 2017, Summer 2017). Every time I write these text-heavy blog posts, I think it would be so cool to turn them into a magazine. Drumroll, please…I did it!

The Still: Fall/Winter 2017 is an online magazine. This was an experiment with free MadMagz software, so please let me know what you think.

Read my reflections on fall/winter 2017 here.

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Muse on a Monday

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“And perhaps if we ever have real equality with all our glorious differences, the language itself will make the appropriate changes. For language, like a story or a painting, is alive. Ultimately it will be the artists who will change the language (as Chaucer did, as Dante, did, as Joyce did), not the committees. For an artist is not a consumer, as our commercials urge us to be. An artist is a nourisher and a creator who knows that during the act of creation there is collaboration. We do not create alone.”

by Madeleine L’Engle in “Icons of the True” from Walking on Water[1]

 MUSE PROFILE

Who is Madeleine L’Engle:

The author who introduced my fourth grade self to the fantasy genre with her book, A Wrinkle in Time.

Why This Person:

I did not know L’Engle wrote anything but fiction for children until recently. I am finding her collection of essays on faith and art to be as invigorating now as A Wrinkle in Time was at age ten.

Why this quote:

My oldest daughter mentioned Interfaith Gathering tonight, and I got all nostalgic. What amazed me tonight was the fact that it did not exist until I created it. And that through that act of creation, something beautiful and life-giving happened for a diversity of women. And how much joy comes from creating something like this, even though it’s hard and the unknowns test you.

Since stepping away from this work following my move to the southern United States, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit floundering a bit, doubting myself and how God may be using me in this new place and stage of life, doubting whether my creative, free-spirit self has a place in the PCUSA, which loves committees and the sense of order and direction they provide.

My heart is finally making the journey home to embrace my Presbyterian lineage–even if I don’t yet trust myself to let all my creative, free spirit colors wave there, or trust my home’s theological breath and demonstrated potential for finding grace in hard questions amidst its love of order and precision.

L’Engle’s words affirm who I am and why my creative, free-spirited self may be welcomed even where committees abound.

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (New York: Convergent Books, 2001), 35.

 

I pray…

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My son and youngest daughter tromp down the wooden stairway perched on a steep, wooded incline in front of their grandparents’ cabin. Buckets and nets in tow, their squeals echo as rambunctiously as their feet racing to the floating dock. They are fishing today, the non-fishing way. No hooks or worms. Just bread crumbs, nets, and long lines of patience.

Depending on the time of day, they may or may not see what they’re trying to catch. My son and daughter lay across the dock’s splintered slats, faces pressed as close to the lake’s mirrored surface as their lifejackets’ bulk will allow. Sometimes they only catch a glimpse of what’s below when a sunfish breaks the surface tension of chocolate gray water.

If, however, the sideways gaze of the rising sun drew my kids down to the dock, they stare into the water’s sepia-infused glow. Scaled bodies, drunk on the morning sun, swim with the music of lakegrass and lilies. Mesmerized by the disco-ball-dazzle of a quartz boulder glittering in the shallows nearby, my kids watch and wait, enchanted.

It’s this kind of enchantment many churches try to create at Christmas. Dazzle! Impress! And maybe, just maybe, some of the people who came because it’s the one time of year they go to church, or because they miss carols and candlelight, or because awhile back the church was their family, or maybe because they’ve never gone and just want to see what this Jesus stuff is all about…maybe, just maybe, some of these people will come back.

This Christmas Eve, I entered the stone archways of a cathedral clad in all its Christmas finery. Candlelight, choirs, brass. Carols and communion. The head priest walked the center aisle, reaching out towards the people in filled pews. He met others’ gazes through round professorial glasses. His gray hair distinguished him more so than his vestments. This was Christmas in all its nostalgic, traditional glory.

And then he preached.

“The woman was so ugly!”

Laughter in the pews from the front and side by the pulpit.

My spine straightened. My skin bristled.

Did he really just say that?

Yes. And not just “ugly woman.”

The “ugliest woman.”

And on it went, spun in ways that confused outer beauty with inner worth. His words twisted one’s God-given goodness from gospel truth into knots beholden to the human standards of male authorities.  This ugly woman was exalted as a necessity for shameful men (like him, he admitted) to learn (and now to teach, apparently) that it’s all okay because God needs broken, ugly women (people, if I’m generous) because that’s how God’s light gets in.

I was drowning, thinking of God’s people who had been diminished by ugly name-calling and labeled less-than by people deemed more powerful than them. Many of whom were likely in the pews around me, bracing themselves against the assault from the pulpit and laughter around them. I longed for the sense of wonder found on the dock with my children.

Those moments on the pier weren’t always perfect, or beautiful, or crystal clear.  But we knew the fish were there. The light was already there. We waited. We watched. Whether we saw into the depths, or how we perceived what swam underneath, was a matter of timing, opportunity, and the perspective revealed by the angle of light. Not really all that different from Bethlehem so long ago, when a baby came to shift our perspective. To shed light in ways that did not break us more, but illuminate new ways to love and better paths to peace.

My heart breaks for the other priests who had to follow the head priest’s path down the aisle. Priests who because of labels are marked as different, or even ugly. Female priests. Priests of color. Priests betrayed by a head priest’s Christmas Eve message to the masses. I pray that more of these children of God stand proudly in the pulpit. I pray they cast light in the ways only they can. I pray our perspectives shift in healing and life-giving ways. I pray that ensnaring people from pulpits with nets of blame and shame becomes a thing of the past.  I pray for a time when all old, white, distinguished, smug men in the pulpit will humble themselves and speak boldly of the beauty found in all God’s creatures.

Muse on a Monday

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The Hidden Clocks (Mon.11-9-15) by Iain Thomas in I Wrote This for You 2007-2017

“Don’t stop searching.

There is no comfort in giving up.

There are large parts of you that don’t exist yet.

The greatest you you could be, is still waiting to be found.

Get up and look.”[1]

Muse Profile

Who is Iain Thomas: Someone I discovered by accident. Poet, media artist, author.

Why This Person: Sometimes the books you need to read find you. Sometimes these books aren’t the ones you go looking for. #anewpoetfoundmeinTarget

Why this quote: Age 40 and breathing life into crucial parts of me that had almost melted away.

[1] Iain Thomas, I Wrote This for You: 2007-2017 (New York: Central Avenue Publishing, 2017).

Muse on a Monday

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Today is the day a tiny baby arrived and offered hope to a broken world.

“What in God’s holy name do you do when it feels like you’re broken and cut up, and love has failed, and you’ve failed, and you feel like Somebody’s love has failed you?”[1]

“My dad had told me this once. For a seed to come fully into its own, it must become wholly undone. The shell must break open, its insides must come out, and everything must change. If you didn’t understand what life looks like, you might mistake it for complete destruction.”[2]

Muse Profile

Who is Ann Voskamp: Bestselling author, blogger, wife, mom.

Why This Person: Voskamp’s writing is lyrical and vulnerable.

Why these quotes:

As Christmas dawns, I find myself broken, raw edges exposed.
And yet, somewhere in my tender wounds, the promise of hope aches.

Not one thing in your life is more important than
figuring out how to live in the face of unspoken pain.”[3]

[1] Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way: A Daring Path into the Abundant Life (Zondervan, 2016), 12.

[2] Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way, 26.

[3] Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way, 12.

Gimme an M! F! A!

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Almost a year ago I attended a writer’s conference that made clear I’m meant to be both writer and pastor. Two months earlier when I started at Columbia Seminary, I thought it was one or the other. God’s call is rarely so simple, so I’ve spent the year since the conference trying to figure out how to live fully into both.

Recently, like a book being opened to the exact right passage, I found the field in ministry that speaks my language, Pastoral Theology. After much doubt my first year of seminary about my pastoral identity, I cry tears of joyous relief.

But what to do about that crazy idea that still cheers at the sidelines, its pompoms shaking as it shouts, “M! F! A!” ? Last year, I wanted to join its team. I was tempted to quit and pursue an M.F.A. degree. Certainly the loudest cheerleader must be God herself! But let’s be real—just because I’m in seminary doesn’t necessarily mean everything is a “God thing”!

What to do with these phantom cheerleaders? Better at least pay attention. When I see an MFA, I see uninterrupted time and an established structure to write. What does that tell me? That I’m not getting enough writing in my current situation. Not because I’m in seminary, but because I’m choosing to use seminary pressures as an excuse not to do even 20 minutes of writing each day—the kind of honest, hard-won writing that does not come in the form of papers or academic reflections, or rushed journal entries.

This realization shifts how I perceive God. Maybe God is speaking through phantom cheerleaders shouting “M! F! A!” But perhaps her message is not necessarily one that tells me what to do (quit and get an MFA), but is an enthusiastic attempt to spell out how I am or am not meeting my present needs.

Reluctantly, I get off the bench and leave behind by program of easy answers. On the field I stretch my muscles, preparing to do the practice and run the complicated plays that will help move me to the end goal of touching down in the future as both writer and pastor. In less than two days, I, too, will cheer—celebrating the complexity, challenge, and wonder of this call at the writer’s conference that pointed me in this mysterious direction a year ago.

The Writing Life of a Seminarian

e9a42464c14573fd513bce3883aa4c2dbyhotblackonmorguefileI’m at the midpoint of the fall semester next week. Which means I have my hands in many projects right now. I’m writing a lot, but the fruits of my work seem to be academic work, forms, communications, or journal entries.

I think that still counts. Here’s some excerpts of what I’ve written recently:

From an email, on discernment:

“Not really knowing what “practical theology” was when I began the Intro to Practical Theology course last summer, I was surprised to learn how well it fit with what I perceive as my pastoral identity. As I experienced the field of homiletics in the spring, I felt I was getting even closer to who I am. I am in Intro to Pastoral Care this fall, and I have finally discovered what I am! A pastoral theologian!! “

From my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) application for a hospital chaplaincy internship, on vocational identity:

“One need that stems from my ministry and call is to know whether I am suited for ministry in contexts of suffering. The majority of my work until this point has been in “positive,” “growth-minded” contexts. Teaching, for example, focused on community building and learning outcomes, camp focused on fun and camaraderie, even children and youth ministry focused primarily on the good things that come from following God. Not that there wasn’t suffering. At camp, for example, I worked with staff members who suffered from mental illness, another who faced an unexpected pregnancy, and others devastated by the news of subway bombings in their London hometown. I worked with campers whose mom was in jail, others whose parents beat them, and another whose dad had terminal cancer. Reflecting on this, I suspect that my skills will transfer and I likely have already used many of them. Combined with fond memories of the pace and duties as a camp director—no day was ever the same…and I had to respond and think on my feet, which I loved—I think chaplaincy could very well be an important aspect of my future vocation.”

From my Committee on Preparation for Ministry annual review forms, on unexpected personal transformation:

“I am so immensely thankful that I ended up in the Atlanta area at Columbia Seminary, even though it’s not what I planned. The cultural shift from a suburban to metropolitan area and northern to southern United States locale is impacting me in subtle but profound ways. My views on race and justice have been cracked open. I’m being transformed. Not just because of the increased exposure I have to these issues on account of my geographical move, but because of the friendships and collegial relationships I’m developing with a great diversity of people among seminary colleagues and in the community.”

From my journal, on my reality right now:

“I never expected seminary to be such a testing ground.”

“I didn’t expect to feel so raw in seminary.”

From a poem I wrote about hope as flame, spark, smoke, and heat:

“…I dance,

a hope-fueled she-dragon,

breathing fire into a world

pregnant with longing.”

I hope you’re dancing, too. –-AE