April 23, 2014

Well, you know

“Day 137: Bed Time” by Tom Small
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The other day I was wondering why A Deeper Story doesn’t feature more stories about sex. Not about the politics of sex, or the abuse of sex. Sex. But then I realized that stories about sex are called erotica and, well, this is the Family channel.

Sex is private. We shouldn’t talk about it publicly – and certainly not in the church (Song of Songs notwithstanding). It will make people uncomfortable. It will make me uncomfortable. It’s how we all came to be, yet we compulsively secret it under layers of myth and shame - except, of course, when it might be useful for the marketing of consumer goods. I worry that there aren’t enough true stories going around. I know there aren’t enough good stories going around.

I’m biased, but I think my story is both true and good.

...read the rest (as I blush furiously) at a Deeper Story.

April 13, 2014

On Faith and Writing and the Festival Thereof

Two years ago, I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing as a presenter, along with Bromleigh and Jenn and Erica, my beloved clergy writing group. Ben and the girls came along to hang out in Grand Rapids. On the drive home we daydreamed about being able to return in 2014 without the girls, thinking that it would be a perfect first getaway. Thanks to Grandma, we really did it: three nights and four days on our own. Well, "on our own" with 3,000 fellow writers of faith. 

It was so good. For my writing and for my faith, for my marriage and for my friendships. 

I tracked down my notes from 2012. Two of the things I highlighted made me laugh. First, from a session on building a platform, "Please be a normal person. Don't be car salesman. Be who you are. Don't be creepy weirdo stalker." And second, from a session on the tricky bits of writing memoir, a quote from Jennifer Grant: "I want to be a person who is being excellent to the people in my life." I laugh because I must have succeeded in being a relatively normal, non-creepy weirdo stalker person, because I'd had two thoughts when I heard Jennifer Grant say what she said about being excellent. I thought: me too! I want to be a person who is being excellent to the people in my life! And I also thought: I want to be a person in Jennifer Grant's life. And lo and behold: I am now a person in Jennifer Grant's life! And a bunch of other amazing writers, many of whom are also part of Ink: A Creative Collective, which debuted at this year's festival. I am pinching myself that I get to be a part of this talented group, not only as a colleague but as a friend. 

The Ink debut was a highlight, but only one of many. I laughed hard with old friends, and hugged new ones for the first time. I revisited favorite restaurants and had some truly holy conversations. I talked about building bridges of Christian Unity with a dear conservative Baptist friend while actually standing on a bridge. And I heard some speakers who delighted and inspired me (particularly Luci Shaw, Rachel Held Evans, and one I'd previously never heard of, Sharon Garlough Brown). 

My writing and my faith have been in an appropriately Lenten place lately. There's a lot of unexpected shifting and stirring and upending in my heart, all of which has left me feeling what I've described as "holy sadness". It's not a bad thing, exactly, except that sad doesn't always feel good, even when it's holy. I'm starting to sense that Easter is coming. Not that I'm going to skip past Holy Week, liturgically or otherwise. But I have some new hopes for my writing, and feel as though I'm on the cusp of actually parting with some of the fears and - dare I say it, sins - that have shallowed my spiritual life.

Case in point. Before the Festival, I'd been thinking that once I actually got around to blogging I would write a post revisiting that old topic of pastoral and writerly identity. Sharon Garlough Brown, in her session on "writing as the beloved", said this:

I'm just going to say it plain: I really needed to hear that. It's a pretty amazing thing to come away from a big fancy literary festival astounded by the simple fact of God's love for me. It changes everything in my life because it changes me.

April 2, 2014

Advice for Chicks [a guest post by Karen Swallow Prior]

Karen Swallow Prior has made me think - and laugh - a lot in the short time I've known her on the Internet. I'm looking forward to meeting her in person next month at the Festival of Faith and Writing!

Egg production by my small brood of hens has slowed considerably, so last Saturday I went to Tractor Supply where little cheeping tufts of fur are plentiful this time of year. I came home with a half dozen lemon and honey colored puff balls that could hardly hold themselves up. I swear, by the next morning they had sprouted from practically embryonic to full-fledged teenagehood, sassing and chirping and tearing up in their big wooden box topped by a red glowing heat lamp.

Every day, I hold each one and talk to them so they will come to know my voice and my touch. These are some of the things I find myself saying when I find myself alone with them in the cool, dark garage where they will stay until they are big enough in a few weeks to join the grown up girls.

I hope they will remember me then.

1. Stay under the heat lamp.
2. Sleep as much as want.
3. Don’t sleep in your food.
4. Pecking orders are a fact of life—get used to it.
5. Venture out from the flock from time to time.
6. Huddle together to stay warm.
7. Don’t kick sawdust in your water.
8. Fluff those feathers with vim and vigor.
9. Rest easy in hands that treat you with warmth and kindness.
10. Flee from hands that don’t.
11. Don’t eat your poop.
12. Enjoy your youth. You’re a spring chicken for just a season.

Karen Swallow Prior is a Professor of English at Liberty University. Her books include Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson 2014) and a literary and spiritual memoir, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press 2012). She is a contributing writer for Christianity Today, The Atlantic, In Touch, and Think Christian. Her writing has also appeared at Comment, Relevant, Books and Culture, Fieldnotes, The Well and Salvo. She has spoken at numerous writing conferences including the Festival of Faith and Writing and the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. Prior is a member of Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She lives in rural Virginia with her husband along with sundry dogs, horses, and chickens.

April 1, 2014

Ignatian Examen: a practice of daily reflection

I work full time as a minister, charged with nurturing the spiritual lives of young families – yet I cannot seem to get a handle on the spiritual life of my own young family.

I have grand intentions. This is, of course, part of the problem. Spirituality is especially vulnerable to our tendency to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

We think it must be all or nothing – you either do the weeklong silent yoga retreat or eschew yoga entirely, even though a five-minute-a-day practice could be quietly life-changing.

Or you sign up to read the whole Bible in a single year only to peter out in April (okay, March) and realize that there is dust on the good book by August.

... continue reading at The Art of Simple (which is, incidentally, my favorite blog ever).

March 30, 2014

Grace upon Grace

[I loved writing this homily on John 9:1-41, and loved preaching it even more. It's a sermon that made me feel like a preacher again, and that doesn't always feel like my primary pastoral identity anymore, now that I'm an associate minister.]

Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but when I reread this story of a man born blind who experienced the grace of God through the restoration of his sight, I remembered the story of a man born with sight who experienced the grace of God even as his once-perfect vision darkened into blindness.

This man who once wasn’t blind but now couldn’t see wrote these words: 
“The human eye is a marvelous creation - “the window of the soul,” said Plato. But Plato had never been around opthalmologists. To them, and rightly so, the eye is an organ. It is nerve and muscle and cells. It is the object of their curiosity, the font of their knowledge, the beauty of their craft. But when all the rhapsodies are sung, the eye is an instrument, a means to an end. Humans see with their brains, not their eyes. The eye receives the stimulus of light, focuses on the sources of light, converts the light particles to nerve “signals” and, through the nerves of the retina, sends the signals to the brain for decoding, interpretation, and information to all the systems of the brain and body. It is marvelous how this works, and how little we are aware of the intricacies of this constant, continuous process - until the mechanism malfunctions.”

Perhaps you recognized these words. Perhaps you knew the man who wrote them. I only met him once, all too briefly, but I have availed myself of his many books. We have all of them in our Kemper Library, as well we should, for the library is named in his honor.

The Reverend Robert Kemper, who was the senior pastor of this congregation for thirty years, lived the same story as the man born blind, but in reverse. Yet because God is Alpha and Omega, before us and behind us, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, both stories ended with grace upon grace.

Bob Kemper began losing his vision in his thirties. It was, as you can imagine, a devastating experience. His memoir, An Elephant’s Ballet, is a story of grief - but it is also a story of healing. Reverend Kemper’s blindness descended quickly and irreversibly. Life as he had known it was over - but as it turned out, there was a new life on the other side of that darkest valley. What you must know, if you do not already, is that Bob Kemper did not become the pastor of this congregation when he could see. He became the pastor of this congregation not long after he could not. He had to learn to see himself as a man who, though blind, could still teach and preach and serve this community of faith.

This community of faith already saw him that way. The day he was called to become Senior Pastor, he and and his family entered the sanctuary as the congregation sang, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.” 

He recalled, 
“Tears were in the eyes of my wife and children, moved by the public recognition I was receiving. Tears were in the eyes of many in the congregation, sensing a new development and direction for their much-loved church. Tears were in my eyes too, for all those reasons, but also because of the awesome awareness within me of the power of grace. The grace of God had delivered us to that moment of ending and of beginning. The tears were embarrassing to no one. They opened us to receive the hugs and handshakes of the ties that bind us. 
I stood in the warmth of that congregation as their preacher, pastor, teacher, counselor, leader, and most important, friend. I did not stand there as the amazing blind man, the elephant who danced, the unfortunate victim of disease, the object of their pity. I stood in that place as a person and pastor, and it was good to stand in that way because of the saving power of grace.”

Thanks be to God.
I worry that by telling the story of a man who became literally blind, I’m running the risk of implying that this is a story about literal blindness. It isn’t. True, a man’s sight was restored. But this tale of healing isn’t really about the vision we experience through that organ made of nerve and muscle and cells. As Reverend Kemper wrote, even our actual sense of sight isn’t really a function of the eye. It’s a function of the mind. And the vision that is most critical in this story is the vision that goes even deeper than our brains.

The way of seeing that this story celebrates is a vision of the heart. This is the story of restoration of sight, all right: a story about seeing who God is, and who we are. It’s a story about refusing to see anything that doesn’t fit into our idea of how things are. It’s a story about learning to see new truths. And most of all it’s a story of salvation, of amazing grace.

All of this is to say that there is more to this story than meets the eye - sorry, I couldn’t resist.

If you’ll bear with me, I want to lift up a few plot points. Did you notice that some of the blind man’s neighbors didn’t even recognize him when he returned to their presence as a man who could see? It’s not like Jesus had altered the man’s appearance when he healed his eyes with mud and spit. They simply could not believe their own eyes. The Pharisees even went so far as to demand the man’s parents identify him.

Now that’s a whole set of characters who are, spiritually speaking, blind as bats. In this story, the Pharisees simply don’t get it. They don’t recognize Jesus for who he is, and they certainly don’t recognize the presence and power of God’s love moving in their midst. They just want to talk about sin. They are so convinced of their version of the story - so unwilling to see the formerly blind man as a sightless and sinful fool, they cast him out.

Which is to say, they ensure they won’t have to look at him anymore, standing there in all his healed and restored glory, his mere existence a testimony of their blindness.

And then there’s the blind man himself. It seems his physical sight was restored lickety-split, but his spiritual sight emerged slowly, as if his eyes had to adjust to the brightness of the brilliant light shining before him.

The first time his neighbors asked him how his eyes were opened, he explained that “a man called Jesus” had done it.

When the Pharisees ask him about who this Jesus is, the man says he is a prophet.

The second time the Pharisees question the man, he takes it a step further. “If this man were not from God, who could do nothing.”

And then the man finally speaks to this Jesus who restored his sight but got him driven away by the religious authorities. And here the man who once was blind but now can see sees it all clearly at last. Jesus is no mere man. Jesus is no mere prophet. Jesus is not merely sent from God; Jesus is the Son of God. And here he tells us exactly what he sees: “Lord, I believe.” And he worships him.

This is what the story is showing us, what the story is asking us to see: the face of God. The truth. And it’s a beautiful one, the truth that is revealed when the mud gets washed away and our vision is stripped of all the lies we’ve ever believed.

I don’t know what I can’t yet see, what I might be stubbornly refusing to see. I don’t know what you can’t yet see, what light and truth is just beyond your field of vision.

I do know a prayer worth praying: open our eyes, O God.

I do know that when this prayer is answered, when we’re surprised by the grace of God, when we see ourselves as we really are, when we behold the brilliant light of the one who came that we might no longer walk in darkness, there isn’t a dry eye in the whole place.

Thanks be to God.

March 13, 2014

Footsteps in the Student Center

Hello, my dusty blog. I wish I had the time and energy to do anything more than just reminisce about the good old days when I actually wrote stuff here. Maybe again. But until then, here's a link to an elsewhere essay.

I was nineteen and was trying to be a Christian again, not because I’d fallen in love with Jesus but because I’d fallen in love with a boy who wanted to marry a good Christian girl. (There’s more to that story, but for now it’s enough to know that it has a happy ending: we broke up. Thank God.)

I’d been thinking I’d be a Unitarian Universalist, because I loved church and was constitutionally religious, but couldn’t quite think my way out of agnosticism. Unitarian Universalism wasn’t quite Jesusy enough for the then-boyfriend, and truth be told, it wasn’t quite Jesusy enough for me. When I worshipped in the funky, cerebral UU church in town, I missed Jesus. I missed the stories he told, and I missed the stories people told about him. I missed the bread, and I missed the cup.

Disqus for any day a beautiful change