Wells in the Wilderness

For about the last year, I have been worshiping with the community of St. Luke’s Lutheran of Logan Square — on the Sundays I haven’t been preaching elsewhere, of course.  I chose St. Luke’s because they are a vibrant and visionary community that had the courage to sell their building and open up shop in a storefront, and because of their deep commitment to social justice — and also, largely, to “low-key stalk” my dear friend Erin while she completed her internship year there.

hagar-ishmael-augo4Anyhoo, one of the neat things St. Luke’s does is to engage the congregation in a regular practice of testimony, often inviting laypeople to prepare testimonies from their own lives around a certain theme to read in worship.  This past Sunday was my last Sunday at St. Luke’s before I move to New Mexico for internship (by the way, I’m moving to New Mexico for internship — forgot to make that announcement!).  It seemed incredibly fitting that I should answer a question about experiencing God in the desert before embarking on a literal journey to a literal desert.

My testimony was related to the Hebrew Testament reading — Genesis 21:8-21 — in which Hagar and her son Ishmael are kicked out into the desert by Abraham’s wife Sarah.  I was asked to respond to the question, “When was a time when you experienced God/good news in a place of isolation, abandonment, death?”  This is what I wrote:

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Recovering Ancient Understandings of Gluttony

Book Review/Reflection for Class:
The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters by Mary Louise Bringle

       Mary Louise Bringle lays out her book, The God of Thinness: Gluttony and Other Weighty Matters, after the fashion of a meal, titling her chapters “Apértif,” “First Course,” “Second Course,” and so on. I found it fitting, because this book was, indeed, a rich feast of reflection on the issue of gluttony and its relationship to the culture surrounding weight, food, and dieting in our society. I also appreciated that this book was suffused with Bringle’s own struggles with disordered eating and self-image; she conveys a gravity and emotional complexity around this issue which I also deeply feel. Bringle opens up the riches of Christian tradition, history, and theology to respond to this still current question of gluttony. She explores patristic and monastic writings for wisdom on how gluttony is rightly to be understood; I particularly found her discussion of Gregory the Great’s five kinds of gluttony to be clarifying and helpful. And she ultimately shows that gluttony is a matter of disordered priorities that idolize the goodness of creation above its Creator, resulting in damaged relationship to God, to neighbor, and to self. This book was published 25 years ago, but it continues to be extremely relevant.

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Making Space for Mystics and Madness

Here’s another bit of writing from one of my classes this semester, this one from the Pastoral Care and Mental Illness course I’ve been taking.  This particular course has had some interesting overlap with another of my classes: Desert Discipleship, which explores the legacy of the desert fathers and mothers of the early centuries of Christianity.  In this assignment, which I conceived as an article for a church newsletter, I propose a connection between schizophrenia and the legacy of St. Anthony.  Enjoy!

st-anthony-the-great-3St. Antony, also known as Anthony the Great, was a Christian monk who lived in Egypt in the third and fourth centuries. He renounced the wealth left to him by his parents and chose to live an ascetic life in the desert, fasting and meditating on Christ. Antony became a wise and famous figure of Egyptian monasticism, but more than anything, he was known for his battles with demons.

St. Athanasius, the fourth century bishop of Alexandria, described these battles in The Life of Antony, which quickly became one of the most popular books in Christian history. Many modern readers will find these accounts more than a little odd, but there was something about Antony’s life and his battles with the demons that earlier generations undeniably found compelling. Athanasius describes how Antony withdraws further and further into the desert, at one point enclosing himself in a deserted barracks and receiving stores of food only twice a year. Athanasius writes:

Those friends who came to see him, since he would not allow them to come inside, often remained outside day and night. They heard what sounded like mobs of people creating a ruckus and crashing around inside, letting loose their pitiful voices and crying out, “Get away from what belongs to us! What are you doing in the desert? You will not be able to endure our connivings!” Those outside at first thought some people… had gotten inside by means of ladders… but when they knelt down to look through a hole in the wall, they did not see anyone. (Athanasius, 2003, p. 89)

1an33__24635_1405404609_900_900Antony instructs his followers to be wary of these demonic voices, telling them that they fill one’s head with “filthy thoughts” and cause “apparitions,” that “they pretend to frighten us by changing their shapes and taking on the appearance of women, wild beasts, reptiles…” (Athanasius, 2003, p. 113)

Hundreds of people flocked to the desert to be taught by Antony, to the point that Athanasius writes that they “forcibly tore down his door and forced him to come out.” (Athanasius, 2003, p. 91) Reading this in the 21st century, I have a hard time imagining this happening in our day. Even though the Christian church has centuries of history and tradition of mysticism and mystery, I can’t imagine people rushing out to sit at the feet of anyone who heard voices and saw apparitions and warned others about demons putting thoughts into their heads today. Can you? If St. Antony lived today, many folks would probably be pretty quick to label him a schizophrenic. They would probably say that he was crazy. Continue reading

Cancer, Evolution, and a Creation Stumbling Forward

636108839739494027-1837980528_Pink-Breast-Cancer-Awareness-Wallpapers.jpgI have been taking a particularly fascinating (and challenging!) course this semester called “The Epic of Creation: Scientific, Biblical, and Theological Perspectives on Our Origins.”  While many of our class sessions have been (to my mind) thickly scientific and technical and rather over my head, last Monday, we had a deeply engaging conversation about theological and pastoral perspectives on cancer as an evolutionary phenomenon.  Given my family history of cancer — most notably, my mother’s death from breast cancer in 1994 — this is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart.  I rushed home after class to write my reflections about all that we had discussed, and after re-reading what I wrote, I decided to share some of it here.  I hope it’s meaningful for others as it is for me. Continue reading

My Own Independence Day

CW: diet talk, weight loss, profanity, disordered eating

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Me rocking a new winter coat that actually fits well and looks nice

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I quietly celebrated an important anniversary yesterday.  It’s been exactly one year since I gave up dieting and stopped trying to lose weight.  I had been resistant and afraid to do it, terrified that I would lose all control over my eating and constantly gorge myself on all the fatty, fried, and sweet foods I so desperately craved.  I felt like a crazy person around food and even thought that perhaps I was a food addict.  I used to hide my eating from those closest to me who I knew would disapprove: hiding candy in unlikely places (like my closet or behind books on a shelf), hiding myself in the bathroom to sneak my little treats.  I felt guilty and hungry and ashamed all. the. time.

A year ago, I was lying face down on my bed, sobbing uncontrollably, feeling like the most miserable life form in the universe.  I don’t even remember what set me off, if indeed, there even was anything.  I was so sick of dieting, so sick of constantly denying myself the pleasure of eating.  And most of all, I was just unbearably sad.  The ideal of the thin (or even the thinner) me seemed impossibly far out of reach, and getting further by the minute.  I had legitimately given it my best.  I have lost as much as 70lbs in a single go in my life, but without fail, it always comes back, and when it does, it brings along reinforcements. Continue reading

Folks and Yokes

Today was the last day for my friend Erin and me at our Ministry in Context — “MIC” — site.  We bid a fond farewell to the bilingual congregation we’ve been serving part-time in the western suburbs of Chicago for most of the last nine months.  Even though we only got to spend seven or eight hours a week in the church, we really started getting to know people and building relationships with members of the congregation.  It was bittersweet to leave when it feels like we’ve barely begun.

Probably my favorite moment of the day was a part of the special sending they did for us at each of the three services.  The pastor had congregants come forward and lay hands on us, while he prayed, blessed us, and anointed us with oil.  It never ceases to amaze me just how powerful the ministry of touch is.  Just as much as the very kind words of affection and affirmation that we heard from parishioners, the warm, loving touch of their hands on our backs and shoulders was a palpable sign of their care and blessing.

At one of the services, as I stood there before the altar, feeling the light pressure of their hands on my shoulders, I was suddenly reminded of Jesus’ words at the end of Matthew 11: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  This is the vocation to which I have been called: to be “yoked” to the church, “burdened” with love for this community and for its Lord.  And I am so grateful for it.

Thinking about air

Every Sunday evening at my church, we have a gathering called “Living in Grace” — a chance to meet for dessert and faith-related conversation bookended by Holden Evening Prayer. Lately, we’ve been watching a series of videos by Animate Faith; this last Sunday, we watched one about the purpose of the church. The speaker asserted that one of the reasons the church struggles is that we see it as many things — social club, hospital, spiritual retreat, etc. — things that are centered around us and our needs, rather than centered around God. We noted that, ironically, after making this point, the speaker quickly wandered off of it to other things.

It’s difficult to be centered around God. We are told that God is close, but that God’s ways are not our ways, that God’s ways are higher than our ways. We glimpsed God in a frail human frame — alive as we are alive, loving, suffering, dying — but then we are told that before time was, God is, that even this aspect of God that took on flesh is the vessel through whom and for whom all things were made. How can you focus on the source of all creation without getting sidetracked just thinking about that creation? How can we conceive of God without understanding God in our own, limited, mortal terms?

It occurred to me that trying to hold onto our slippery concepts of God is a little like trying to think about air. Air is something we’re rarely conscious of — it’s invisible and all around us everywhere we go, every second of every moment of every day. We count spaces filled with air as empty spaces, forgetting that air *is* there — a composition of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other stuff that very much exists. Even when we take a breath or feel the wind on our faces, we think only about the sensation, and not about the mixture of atmospheric gases entering our lungs. Yet it gives us life, and without it, we can’t survive more than a few minutes.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with keeping God at the center of my life, and it helps to remember that, like the air, God is there, giving me life, whether I am conscious of it or not. In that vein, I wrote the following poem, which I wanted to share:

think about the air
the quiet invitation
quickly gets lost
lost in color
and light and
feeling and sound
all in the air
filling my lungs
it’s always there
giving me life

I cannot run
without the wind
across my face
and the air ragged
in my nostrils
nor can I
give my breath
to lonely sighs
without the same air
parting my lips
it’s always there
outside my skin

let it in
the quiet invitation
let the light
and the color
and the feeling
and the sound
give you insight
breathe in the air
it’s always there
giving you life

think about the air
across your face
tangling your hair
parting your lips
filling your lungs
giving you life
it’s always there
think about the air

Daughter

Here is the fruit of my latest songwriting efforts:  “Daughter.”  It was inspired by a verse that I recently rediscovered, one that both haunted me and gave me hope during my transition from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to what ended up being a couple of mostly secular years:

“How long will you waver, O faithless daughter?  For the Lord has created a new thing on the earth…”  Jeremiah 31:22

It’s a verse that seems to fit all my wanderings in and out of organized religion, but it also seems timely given the conversations happening across the modern day church about the challenges it faces.  The verse preceding it even makes plain that the question is directed not at a single person, but to God’s people on earth:  “Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities.”

These are tough times for a model of organized religion that was built around a set of social assumptions that are no longer remotely accurate.  For those that cling to the outdated loveliness of this sinking ship, the future seems full of fear — emptying pews, mounting bills, and the looming end of church as we know it.  But we must learn to see through the fog of all these worries, and to see the church as God sees it — as the body of Christ, constantly being made new.  We are passing from one season to another and being renewed together — change is coming, whether we want it or not, but we have the choice to either shrink from it with fear and trepidation, or to seize it eagerly as a light of hope and a bright new chance to dive deep into God’s restorative work in the world.

Lyrics are below:

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