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Creating Live Encounters

347 - AThe story begins with Khing. He is a woodcarver, a master really, so masterful that his work is deemed to be the result of magic. “What is your secret?” the Prince wonders. But Khing is emphatic, “I have no secret.” Khing is not a magician but a workman, and any good worker knows that the best things in life are crafted at the intersection of discipline and potential. This is true not only of artists but ministers, too.

Chuang Tzu’s story of the woodcarver is a favorite among my Courage & Renewal colleagues. At the first retreat I ever attended, we worked the story like a farmer works a field; weaving in and out of each row, holding its fruit in our hands, wondering how it would ripen in our hearts. To be honest, the intense time of reflection made my head hurt. (Even now, after two years spent preparing to be a Courage & Renewal facilitator, I still get “reflection fatigue.”) Introspection is the hard work of tilling the soul. Prayer is the irrigation. It is the only way we can hope to grow others.

Khing knows that to create – a work of art, a work of worship – begins by killing the pest of distraction. And so Khing “guards his spirit” from trifles not to the point: gain and success, praise and criticism, even food and bodily wants. (I cringe to think the only thing my church taught me to guard my spirit from was boys.) It’s not that such things are inherently bad but that they keep us from things that are better. Author Francis Chan reminds us, “Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” Distractions keep us from the work for which we were commissioned.

Last week, I co-facilitated a workshop for ministers, ordained and lay, on how to live with integrity and wholeness. For some, the reflective exercises were old hat. For others, they were long overdue. It’s no secret, but no less ironic, that those called to tend the life of the soul experience some of the most death-dealing conditions of any professionals. According to J.R. Briggs’s Fail:

  • 80% of pastors (and 84% of their spouses) are discouraged in their role as pastors;
  • 70%  of pastors say they do not have a single close friend; and
  • 70%  of pastors say they have  lower self-esteem than when they entered the ministry.

With cries that parts of the church are losing people, money, and influence, self-care can seem like a trifle ministers don’t have time for; there are program budgets, hospital visits, and sermon preparations that require near-constant attention. But by neglecting the care of our own souls, we sacrifice that which is worthy for that which is pressing. One can’t strike off the discipline of holy listening like an item on a to-do list. It is the hand that pens the list.

It’s no secret how Khing does the work for which he was commissioned. It takes discipline to focus with singularity on his purpose but so too must he learn to heed the potential gifts of the world around him. Will-power alone is not enough to get the job done. In his case, the idea to carve a bell stand only comes to fruition when he ventures into the forest and imagines its outline in a tree. “What happened?” Khing asks. “My own collected thought encountered the hidden potential in the wood; from this live encounter came the work…”  Alone in the woods, free of his own distractions and other people’s expectations, he is able to evoke the gift of the “other” and co-create a vision more brilliant than the one with which he began.

Whether we are artists or ministers, we learn that the work before the work creates the conditions for growth. It’s true that introspection for the sake of itself is crazy-making, like tilling our soil with no intent to plant. But introspection for the sake of tending our calling and growing the gifts of others? From this live encounter comes our art.

image-1This November 6-7, my colleague Nathan Kirkpatrick and I are leading a two-day, non-residential retreat in Chapel Hill called, Creating Live Encounters. (Registration is available here; don’t hesitate to apply for financial aid.) It’s open to clergy and people of faith who want to learn what it means to show up in our lives and work as ourselves – undistracted and undeterred - and how we can create space for those we serve to do likewise.

Writer’s Envy: Creating with God

photo (55)I’ve come up with a handful of one-liners to the curious question of why, after eight years of marriage, I still don’t have kids. “Because I don’t want kids” is a blunt, if not incomplete, response. “Because I want to be available to other people’s kids,” is true, if not pietistic. Of all the one-liners I’ve tried, the one that feels most honest is often hardest to defend: “I’ve just never thought pregnancy was one of life’s must-have experiences.” Especially when shared with someone who has chosen to procreate, the answer is hard to give. The answer means I don’t want what you want.

It wasn’t until I read Sarah Jobe’s Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy that I not only felt the ping of writer’s envy, but also the first ping of pregnancy envy. I had never considered the morning sickness, constant constipation, and boundary-breaking belly touching of pregnancy to be anything more than speed bumps on the road toward reward. When I learned that our bodies experience an effect akin to smoking weed during labor so as to forget the intense pain and remember it fondly enough to do it again, my point was confirmed. Anything that required a high to endure wasn’t worth the effort.

Jobe turned it all around for me. In what is one of the best pieces of biblical feminist scholarship I’ve read on the subject to date, she proposes that pregnancy is not just an act of housing God but rather becoming like God. Women are not empty vessels by which God implants his holy seed but instead are co-creators in the divine mystery of making something out of nothing. In the Judeo-Christian creation story, Eve exclaims, “I have made a man with God!” (Genesis 4:1). Jobe explains, “Eve says nothing of having God’s ‘help’ in the matter. She uses a short proposition that very plainly means ‘with.’ She doesn’t create with God’s help. She created with God.” The claim, Jobe says, is startling.

So is the rest of Jobe’s book as she expertly weaves scriptural exegesis with personal storytelling that is both charming and candid. It’s her matter-of-fact tone – no doubt an asset in her work as a pastor, prison chaplain, and doula – that prevents the smack of sentimentality that so often turns me off from all things mother-to-be. Instead, she writes about the goodness of guttural groaning (Romans 8:26), the gift of people wanting to touch you (Luke 8:42-46), and the privilege of bearing pain for a purpose (Galatians 3:17). Pregnant women image not only Christ but also the church in as much as they create a dwelling place for both God and her children to abide (John 15:4).

The genius of Jobe’s book is that she valorizes pregnancy without making it the singular mark of womanhood. There’s a final note at the end in which she explores how the unsettling notion that women will be saved through their childbearing (1 Timothy 2:15) is true in as much as salvation means learning to receive God’s love and extending that love to others. What’s not true is that childbearing is the only way – even the primary way – women can experience the good, full life Jesus offered. Jobe writes, “For me , the mind-blowing good news of this book is not that pregnancy is the only way to get to know God, but that pregnancy is a way of knowing God at all.”

While pregnancy enthralls me, it does not excite me.  When friends talk about it, I nod my head like they are talking about a trip to China I will never book. I don’t have enough time or energy to see every square inch of this world called experience. Choices must be made. There are other countries that have my heart. Even if they are less traveled, the possibility of meeting God in their landscapes is no less real.

Maybe I want what you want after all.

On the Ministry of Availabilty

photo (53)I get paid to work sixteen hours a week. I spend another sixteen on underpaid projects not fit for making a living. The rest of an average work day is set aside for what I call the “ministry of availability.” Included in such ministry is responding to texts from friends (no more than one social outing per day), responding to creaks in my body (no more than three days without a long walk), and responding to the sound of God that comes on as unpredictably as the engine light in my truck.

One morning, the light came on in the parking lot of Whole Foods. The day was overcast and I was optimistic; the world tends to require less of me when the mood is bleak. I had just bent over to buckle my groceries when a thought flickered in my mind: “Ask her if she needs a ride.” She, I gathered, was the old black woman at the nearby bus stop. And from what I could tell by her curved posture, she didn’t seem to be in a hurry. Then again neither was I.

The problem was “Ask her if she needs a ride” is the kind of God thing my mother hears. “Ask her if she needs a ride” could have been an article in the catechism of my faith. Every trip to the grocery store was an opportunity to hear God’s voice if we could only quiet the rickety wheel of the shopping cart long enough to listen. I don’t remember ever feeling too busy to spare an extra twenty minutes to take a stranger home. Spontaneity was among the great gifts of childhood.

I yielded to the idea of becoming like my mother and shouted out the window, “Hey! Can I give you a ride?” The old woman’s neck turned slowly toward me, and I was sure she was going to say no but at least I would have asked.  The satisfaction of obedience would be my reward. But just as gently as she was standing on the sidewalk, she began walking toward my car, stopping at the safe distance of two arm lengths to inspect me.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Well, I’m going home, but where are you going?”

“I’m going home, too.”

“Where’s home for you?”


“Oh, that’s not far.”

“If you say so.”

And that settled it.

We spent our first five minutes together trying to decide in which direction to start driving since she didn’t exactly know how to get home without the bus route to guide her. She knew how to get there from the dry cleaner so perhaps we could go to the dry cleaner first. Where’s the dry cleaner? That she didn’t know either but she had a claim ticket that if I could just give her a minute more, she’d surely find. Her name was Cecelia Jackson but I was to call her Mrs. Jackson because from what she could tell I looked suspiciously young.

After we took the long way to the dry cleaner and I waited in the car for her to get her items and then apologized that her newly steamed coat would be dusted in dog hair, we found her apartment. This was a relief to me as I was beginning to imagine a Silver Alert with my licence plate attached. When we pulled up in the semi-circle in front of her building, the air let out of my lungs. “Why Mrs. Jackson! Do you know how many people my age would love to live in a building like this?” She beamed. It was an old, brick hosiery mill turned into assisted living for seniors. Did I want to come in and see it?

The thing with the ministry of availability is once you get going, it’s hard to stop.

I parked the car and met her at the front door of the building. “109,” she said and pointed to the numbers on the buzzer. “Remember that if you ever want to see me again.” She introduced me to a few folks sitting in the lobby, and not with any great sense of pride, before she led me down the blue-felt path to her door. What the apartment lacked in size it made up for in light; floor to ceiling windows the shape of fat Popsicle sticks butted up against one another. “Oh, Mrs. Jackson,” I melted. The city felt larger than it had moments before.

I didn’t stay long. The time I’d scheduled for being unscheduled was beginning to wane, and even though I could see the irony in this, it was an irony I accepted. She wasn’t overly grateful saying goodbye, and this prevented any sort of smugness as I drove home knowing very well I would make no effort to see her again.

It’s not that I’m too busy; I am decidedly not and hold firmly to the belief that saying “no” is a spiritual practice. It’s that there’s enough in my life that’s already mapped out, and it’s never as thrilling as what happens when the light comes on.

Obedience is not subjection to divine authority, but the act of keeping ourselves open to the Spiritual Presence which has already grasped and opened us. – Paul Tillich

Deep Cleaning My Marriage

photo (52)The summer trips are over. Sand still dusts the bottoms of suitcases, and where the crease of canvas gathers – lint from dirty toes. Walking down the heart pine hallway, I loosen the tufts of Amelia-hair from the floor boards, a reminder of promises not kept (to always vacuum when he mows) and schedules not followed (to do both weekly, cheerfully). We have forgotten our filth long enough, turned a blind eye from the clay-colored toilet bowl and the web-covered dining chairs and now our home’s in need of a reckoning.

It’s time for our annual deep clean.

We begin on the outside. This is the part of us people can see, and we figure if others look upon us with some sense of kindness, we can do the same for ourselves. He starts in the yard, I in the screened porch. This is what feminists call the division of labor, and until I was in the business of dividing my labor with a man, I thought myself hardy enough to work the whole lot. I am wiser now. I know how the pink of my skin rises with mosquito bites when exposed to the summer air. He knows how his knees give when he’s spent too long scrubbing the one spot. Although we are divided by fault lines, we work in each other’s sight lines. We work together.

We’re to start in the kitchen next, the dirtiest room in the house, but we’ve been playing ping pong in a rainstorm and will have to return later for our soaking bikes. When we get home, we’re too tired to make another mess, so we microwave canned soup and since it says it’s organic we feel alright. We know our limits now. “Are you ready to do this?” he asks, and I say with mischief in my voice, “Nope.” He laughs. I’m serious. “We’re adults, man! Who says we have to do this tonight? We can do whatever we want. This is our house.” We pour another glass of wine and yield to the rhythm that’s ours.

We’ve worked our way through nearly the whole house by the time we get to the kitchen two weeks later. Everything has been touched. Everything has been brought out into the light and inspected and had to pass the, “Do we still want this?” test. We are changing, always changing, and the answer to last year’s question of the brown-woven place mats could be different this year. It’s worth asking again. “Do we still want this?”

Do we still want this board game?

This table?

This house?

This life?

We are in the kitchen now. It has taken us five hours, but we don’t care. We have a job to do, with our bodies. I like this work, this list of rooms and checklists and doneness. There is a sort of deviant control to this deep clean, a belief that if I’m wide awake to my life, there will be no careless mistakes. “There’s a grease spot on the side of the toaster,” he says. I cleaned the toaster so I don’t say anything, not until we’re on the floor with blackened rags.  “You know, I cleaned the toaster.” “I know,” he says. “So if you don’t like the way I did it, just do it yourself.” He says, “Okay.”And we are okay. There is still carelessness, but we are okay.

For another week – a month, if we’re lucky – I’ll be able to pad around the house and feel the sticky-clean floor under my feet. The shower mat will be white as store-bought cotton balls and the microwave won’t smell like our past. I can see the surface of things again and am no longer afraid to open darkened drawers. There is enough darkness to be afraid of.

My house will have no part in it.

“Christ was faithful over God’s house as a son, and we are his house if we hold firm the confidence and the pride that belong to hope.”
- Hebrews 3:6

The Benefit of Being Bitter

photo (46)“Why is being bitter such a bad thing?” I ask Rush on one of our regular night walks. Amelia strains her neck into a bush of monkey grass while I continue. “I mean, I don’t recommend it for everyone, but is being bitter a sin?”

We’re fresh off the couch from watching The Normal Heart, the Emmy Award winning, HBO movie about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in America. Written by gay activist Larry Kramer, the largely autobiographical film follows character Ned Weeks as he goes from being a priggish writer to a relentless fighter for what was in 1981 being called “gay cancer.”

It’s Weeks’s fury that lingers with me after the movie ends. First, he’s irate over the medical community’s response (in one scene a gay man has to pay an orderly to help him carry his deceased partner out of the hospital). Then, he lashes out over the  government’s silence (the word “AIDS” wasn’t publicly mentioned by President Reagan until 1985 after the deaths of over 5,000 people in the U.S.). So alienating is Weeks’s anger that the volunteer organization he starts – Gay Men’s Health Crisis – eventually separates itself from him in favor of more bridge-building tactics.

Walking along the crooked sidewalks of our neighbor, I reflect on the fact that his anger looks almost nothing like mine. Mine is slow, self-doubting. It comes in uncertain bursts that die just as soon as they are released, a result of Christian guilt as much as Christian discipline. His anger is extreme, uncompromising. There are countless incidents in which people ask him to soften and he refuses to give up the one thing that sustains him. His own brother pleads, “Isn’t it enough that I love you? Agreeing you were born just the same as I isn’t going to save your dying friends,” to which Weeks responds, “That is exactly what’s going to save my dying friends.” It makes me wonder how often I favor being reasonable over being righteous.

What we do share in common is bitterness, anger’s older sister, the sometimes silent sufferer, the one who can’t help but remember a history of wrongs. Bitterness, I’ve been told, is to be avoided by Christian feminists who must wrest themselves from the reputation of both angry activists and fuming fundamentalists. “But who hasn’t experienced the bitterness of anger long-suffered? Isn’t bitterness just another word for heartache?” I ask Rush as we come up the brick stairs of our home and in from the dark. I hang up Amelia’s leash on the back of the door and we go to bed without more words.

The next morning, it’s the words of Hezekiah that give me my answer. I’m on the back porch, playing Bible roulette. I land in the thirty-eighth chapter of Isaiah whereupon the life of King Hezekiah is coming to an end. A prophesy from the Lord has sealed his fate and now he prays for a reprieve. In fact, the NRSV version says, he weeps bitterly. The Lord answers him by saying, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life.” Hezekiah responds in a psalm of thanksgiving, “Surely, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness.”

I blink once, then twice, stupefied by the plainness of his words. Was it true that “great bitterness” could actually be for my welfare? Elsewhere throughout Scripture, bitterness is described as a curse, something rotten, a plague. The clue to Hezekiah’s bitterness is found in vs. 3 when he reminds God that he has walked in faithfulness with a “whole heart.” His bitterness did not cause his heart to decay but instead gave him the strength he needed to fight. He prayed. He begged. He cried out for more life. And God was moved.

I don’t believe bitterness is always bad, but neither do I believe it’s something to seek out. After all, not everything is worth growing bitter over. My prayer to God these days is “Teach me what matters.” Teach me to be reasonable when the slight is small. Teach me to be righteous when the violence is great. As Ned Weeks shows, one man’s bitterness can benefit more than just himself; it can benefit those who are too weak to fight.

In the end, bitterness may not win friends. But maybe, if held with a whole heart, it wins God.

Faithful Rebel: Author Kelly Bean on How to be a Christian Without Going to Church

Book2I’ll admit it. When earnest, thoughtful, Christ-seeking people tell me they no longer go to church, I have two reactions in the following order: a quick spat of envy, then a chest full of heartsick. How will we find one another in a world of one-size-fits-none religion?

The answer, says community cultivator Kelly Bean, is as much a mental shift as it is a linguistic one. The author of the new book How to be a Christian Without Going to Church (July 2014, Baker Books) doesn’t advocate leaving Christian community altogether. Instead, she encourages believers to make the switch from conceiving church as something we go to – a building, a sermon, a worship service – to something we practice being by modelling Jesus who spoke of the ekklesia as a people set apart (literally “the called out ones”) to gather, heal, and create.

Still, do we have to choose between going and being? I asked her when we chatted over Skype. What if my idea of “being the church” is really just code for being more intentional with friends? What is the role of the stranger in communities not visible on the streets (or searchable on the internet)? And am I the only one that finds the idea of DIY church a little overwhelming?

Despite its provocative title, her book is not a how-to at all but a resource-rich guide to alternative faith communities meant to spark the imagination. For those who do feel the call to become “non-goers,” Bean counsels, “Go gently; go towards something and not away from something.”

To read more about Bean and the community in which she moves, click here to find bonus chapters to the book.

Be Sweet to Me

“Be sweet to me,” you said.
What did you mean?
Had it been so long since I made you feel seen?

But your plea was so real,
eyes lowered and coy,
that I couldn’t but meet your gaze unannoyed.

I let down my face
jaw slackened, lips loose
Releasing the furrow for attention to you

“What shall we do?” I said.
You just waited and preened.
So I took you along wherever I planned to be.

First, to the office.
I typed while you read.
“Am I boring?” I asked, but you shook your head.

To the pool, we went next
Shot full of sunscreen
I flapped on with Katie, while you bathed like a queen.

When the weekend was through
And I was near spent
You said, “One more thing?” and I knew what you meant.

We got in the car
Dials glowing and mute
And drove to your house, in stillness to suit.

Shoulders touching we sat
Mouthed words and a meal
I would not have gone if this weren’t the deal.

“Be sweet to me,” God said.
So I wrote this poor poem.
So even our God sees s/he’s not alone.

photo (45)

But why should I not let my face become
lit before this
when someone I cherish
is near?

- St. Catherine of Siena