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Festival of Faith & Writing: Day Two

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Would anyone miss my blogging if I went to bed instead? I learned today that there are about two million blog posts issued every day. But I promised myself I would do a daily blog from the Festival of Faith & Writing: so be it.

Blogging or Blathering?

I learned the above factoid at a panel discussion entitled Blogging or Blathering: The Current State of Personal Online Writing where participants addressed the question, “Is there still a legitimate place or need for blogging in a writers’s life?” A magazine editor, a publisher, and a former and current blogger spent an hour disagreeing with each other and sometimes with themselves, saying first one thing and then another. The answer seems to be maybe, sometimes, for some people, yes and no.

I may share more about this workshop when my brain re-engages on some far distant day, but for now I’ll just share the one aspect that became clear: if you are trying to build your writing “platform” through following, commenting, and a ubiquitous online presence, don’t waste your time. No editors or publishers read comments anymore and many have shut them down completely. People are too mean and nasty, they say. Sigh.

I also learned that a nice blog length is 500 words — about half of what mine often are. So for the sake of brevity and a good night’s sleep, I’m just going to pick something that struck me from each session I attended today and expand on my experiences later (maybe).

I also learned that blogs must have pictures. So here are some pictures of life on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids:

under tree

 

 lawn2Angling for a Book Deal

Stephanie Smith, an acquisitions editor at Zondervan Publishing talked about developing an angle for your book that will appeal to editors. While “there is nothing new under the sun,” according to the Bible (I think “my book” has already been written by 1,000 people), Stephanie says that all truths are like diamonds — if you look at them from a different angle the light will strike them differently and they will be beautiful every time.

Writing as Caring

Author David Dark is . . . well, I think his brain is differently ordered than the norm. But what a fascinating ride! We bounced from his grandmother to Godzilla to Star Wars to zombies to Mr. Rogers. This guy is scary-bright, so it’s not easy to keep up with him, much less find one nugget to share. How about this: “Writing is an expression of self-care and an expression of communal care. Ask yourself, ‘what do I have in me right now that might be of help to someone?’” He’s just written a book called, “Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious.” Great title! Sadly (for me, not David), it was sold out just hours after his talk, so I will reserve a space on my shelf for it. 

David Dark

David Dark

Poet and teacher Marilyn Chandler McEntyre bemoaned how hard it is to maintain civil discourse in a political climate where stakes are high and well-funded spin campaigns rule the airwaves. “Where half-truths are common currency and discourse is dumbed down, speaking life-giving words can be particularly challenging.” Amen to that! She offered examples of authors who do this well, including Wendell Berry, Naomi Wolf, Naomi Klein, and Chris Hedges. I love Berry, but I need to check out the other three. Two nuggets: “Neutrality is complicity,” and “Laugh when you can.”

Author Shauna Niequist was very generous with her tips and insights into the memoir process. I’ve got pages of notes to digest from her talk. When asked about vulnerability and where she draws the line on what is “safe” or “appropriate” to share, she answered, “I will always throw myself under the bus if it helps you {the reader} know that you are not alone and you are not crazy.”

Last Words

After eleven hours of words and more words, it’s amazing that I could retain anything from the last session, which was a talk about fiction by George Saunders and Tobias Wolff. Two nuggets, both from Wolff:

“Most of us walk around in an unintentional cloud of self-absorption. Literature is the thing that woke me up to the absolute. adamant reality of other human beings.”

And: “Death is in front of all of us. It should tell us something about how we spend our time.”

Here’s a cheerier thought to end on, because I’m told you should never leave your readers hanging on the edge of an abyss:

photo (68)

Carrying love through the shadows

Festival of Faith & Writing: Day One

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Here I am in Michigan at the biennial Festival of Faith & Writing, living the life of a real writer. I had intended to craft a catchy but insightful blog post every day of the festival – you know, “reporting live, here with honest-to-God authors and editors and publishers; here I am, a literary citizen of the world sharing my exciting life with you, etc. etc.”

Except that after one day of wandering the campus of Calvin College from keynotes to panels to workshops to lecture halls, my head is about to explode, and that’s a hindrance to writing. I took copious notes for you, but it turns out that most of them are illegible or half-sentences. So I’m going to give you just a taste.

photo (63)

Tobias Wolff, who wrote This Boy’s Life — a book that helped me realize what an art-form memoir can be — started off the day by warning against being too certain of ourselves as writers of faith. “You cannot write without faith,” he said. “It’s too hard. But doubt is also with us when we write, and we try to leave doubt out of the room for that little time to get our writing done.” Toby left us with a question that I think might confound many of today’s Christian writers: “Is it possible to live a life of authentic faith without the arrogant certainty that can come with it?”

Next up, Dani Shapiro, another author I’ve only recently discovered. I thought she was going to be my new hero, until I heard Zadie Smith talk this evening.

But I must digress for a moment to explain that my long-time literary hero Annie Lamott has lately fallen from grace because she can’t seem to rave about Hillary Clinton without trashing Bernie supporters, which I think is unwise because I imagine that many of her fans are Bernie people like myself. Anyway, I’m mad at her and I’ve told her so on Twitter. So there.

Back to Dani Shapiro. Like Wolff, she praised uncertainty. “When I begin writing, it is an act of faith. The only thing I’m certain of is my profound uncertainty,” she said. “I never know what I know until I’ve spent a lot of time with the page.” She writes to find the answer to her questions, and sometimes simply to clarify the questions through “inner investigative journalism.” Much of her fiction and memoir writing has the goal, she says, of “insisting that sorrow not be meaningless,” of finding patterns and connecting with others who have suffered. I get that.

Dani Shapi

Dani Shapiro

In the afternoon I attended a panel which was interesting mostly in that it was offered at all. You wouldn’t find a panel at most writing conferences entitled, “Surrendering our Need for Status.” This was a group of young women bloggers and authors who talked about their needs “to be special” or “to be admired” or to be “the most clever or the most spiritual,” and then suggested spiritual practices that had helped them battle their pride and envy. I appreciated their honesty, although I did feel I was more clever and more spiritual than they were.

One final panel at 4:30 was probably fine, but my brain had shut down. I ate dark chocolate, that’s about all I can offer — except for one wise quote from a woman author: “To learn to write a book, you have to write a book.” Sad, but true.

The final keynote was from Zadie Smith, whose name I’ve heard forever but whom I have never read. I am going to go home and get all her books. I am going to tape her picture to the wall over my computer. I might have to start stalking her. She is brilliant. Absolutely. I tried to take notes, but her discourse on creativity and the writer’s evolving role in society was so bursting with brilliance that I had to stop.

When it was over, I felt stunned. I turned to the woman next to me and said, “My God, she’s brilliant. That was awesome.”

The woman replied, and I’m not kidding: “Well, yeah, if you could remove all those big words.”

Oh. My. God.

Day one.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith – Blurred Brilliance

Hope Rising From the Ashes

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Hope Rising From the Ashes

It’s Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season in the western church. Tonight I’ll receive a cross of ashes on my forehead, along with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

ashes

Some friends told me the other night that they aren’t coming to Ash Wednesday service because it’s too depressing and sad.

“What?? What are you talking about ?!?!?” I responded gently. (I still have a few things to learn as a pastor.) “Good Friday, yeah, that’s supposed to be somber, but Ash Wednesday is all about hope.”

This did not seem to persuade my friends.

Pressing the Re-set Button

For me, Lent is a time of hope – it’s a forty-day period where we intentionally contemplate our distance from God: What separates us, how would we like to change in order to live more joyfully and become who we are meant to be?

Lent is a great “do-over” time. Press the reset button and try again. Where am I missing the mark?

“Missing the mark” is my favorite translation of the word “sin” in the Bible, from the Greek word hamartia; other translations mean “to go astray” or “to transgress.” (The word “sin” has gone out of fashion in many circles, thank God — it has been used for centuries to shame and frighten people, instead of to encourage and hearten them.)

Lent reminds us that God can get us back on track. God transforms us, and gives us the power to change the parts of ourselves we would otherwise be powerless over, including our thoughts, our motivations, and our attitudes. This is good news, not a reason to be sad! Of course, we can push the re-set button any time we pray, but I love the concept of millions of Jesus-people opening themselves to serious transformation at the same time.

Turning Around

Lent mirrors the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the devil. (Google Luke 4: 1-13 if you’re not familiar with the story.) Ego, power, control, greed, security, esteem — all the temptations common to humanity were thrown at him, but he resisted and instead chose to be the beautiful person that he was created to be. He hit the mark.

So when I adopt challenging spiritual practices for Lent (more on that in a future post), I’m purposely tempting myself, building my spiritual muscle. I am practicing new habits that will help me live life to the full, as Jesus promised, rather than be burdened by parts of myself I don’t like.

Lent is about focus (on my shortcomings and on God’s graciousness and power) and intent (to accept God’s power to change my shortcomings) and repentance (another scary Bibley word which simply means “being willing to change” or “to turn around.”)

Being Remade

So OK, yeah, the ashes thing, the death reminder. I see how that could be depressing. But look at it this way: It’s just a reality check. Life is short. Live it to the full. Drop your crap and choose to be free of it!

I also welcome the ashes as a healthy dose of humility, a tap on the shoulder — “Hey, there was a lot going on before you got here, and there will be a lot going on when you are gone. You are not in charge.” That’s kind of a relief. My job is not to change the world or to change anyone else. My job is to work on myself, co-creating with God the very best Melanie I can be. I’m of no help to the world when I’m operating out of brokenness.

Pastor, heal thyself.

humility star

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the atomic age – as in being able to remake ourselves.”  — Mahatma Gandhi

Birthday Grief Update: Laughter and Love

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In honor of my brother Biff’’s sixty-sixth birthday, I’m gifting you with a short update on my grieving process. (Honest, short.)

When I started this blog three years ago, I did not plan for “grief and death” to be the largest and most popular category. I’m not sure what the vision was, but it wasn’t that. Still, I really had no choice: if I was going to write, that was all I could write.

Over the past nineteen months, I have reached out in desperation and bled all over these pages, only praying that my experiences might help someone else. So I deeply appreciate the people who have told me that my vulnerability during this time helped them grieve.  

I am also grateful to the people who have shared their own stories of loss with me. It’s so important to know we’re not alone. Solitary grieving kills, trust me — it killed Biff.

My main lessons so far:

  • you may feel like you’re losing your mind, but you’re not;
  • you should pray for wisdom and do what feels best for you because everyone’s grieving is different;
  • you should also listen to the people who love you most, because sometimes you can’t see what’s best for you
  • talk (and write) about it as much as you need to — your real friends (and readers) will stick around.

Thanks for sticking around.

Today I Am Well

Today I can tell you that I am well. I will never be “over it,” but I’d say that I am more than three-quarters of the way “through it.” I am happy most days. I have survived what I thought was unsurvivable. So if you are in the throes of grief, take courage. It will get better.

I laugh again, perhaps not quite as much as I used to, but a lot. Yesterday, someone told me I was a “cheery” person. I like that.

I have conversations where I don’t mention my brother. This is nothing short of a miracle. I no longer feel compelled to say things like, “oh – apple pie – that was Biff’s favorite,” or “Biff always liked the rain,” or “Biff had a sweater that color.” I’m sure that my friends are as relieved about this as I am.

I no longer have to tell checkers at the drug store, strangers in the produce aisle, and tellers at the bank that my brother died. His passing defined me for a long time, and was forEVER the answer to “How are you?”

I can choose when to entertain thoughts of Biff, rather than having them pounce on me and pierce my armor. Sometimes – and this is quite recent – I even smile when I think of him. There seems to be a gentleness seeping into my grief. The lasting love is starting to outweigh the acute loss.

I’ve lost a teensy bit of the larger perspective one has during times of grief, which probably isn’t good. I get annoyed at traffic, I grouse about humidity, and I get impatient with people for not doing what I think they should do. For a while, nothing seemed to matter when measured against The Loss. Now, stupid stuff matters again. I no longer live in the metaphysical.

Over the Rainbow

My relationship with music remains complicated. I prefer silence; it’s safer. Music can shoot directly through your consciousness and into your heart, and I don’t need that kind of heartache. Plus, music was an integral part of life with Biff — there are some musicians I doubt I’ll ever listen to again.

Even so, with the exception of Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole’s achingly beautiful version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, it’s now rare that a Biff-song will catch me off-guard and cause me to flee to the ladies’ room in a restaurant or pub. (And when is that 1993 song going to be taken off everybody’s playlist???)

Then there’s Christmas — the anniversary — but we won’t think about that because it will come and it will go and it will all be OK.

So I just want to give a shout-out of amazement and praise to the Power of Love that I call God for getting me this far, for teaching me so much, and for surrounding me with the most wonderful friends and family who have listened and listened and hugged and hugged and waited with me for the laughter to come back.

Thank you.

And happy birthday, dearest Biff – I look forward with joy to seeing you somewhere over the rainbow!

1451345_10202673589991568_1331444760_n.me and biff

Spirit on the Wing II — The High Cost of Flying

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I wrangled with God for decades before I decided to follow Jesus, mostly because I feared God might send me off to Africa to become a missionary. I liked being in charge of my own life, thank you very much, and Africa wasn’t part of the plan.

Now, after several decades of bumbling along after Jesus (including a brief time in Africa working with AIDS orphans and widows), I view my life and God very differently. I have given up the illusion that I’m in charge of anything and have thrown in my lot with a loving higher power who plots goodness for the world and for my life.

There is nothing that gives me more joy than hanging out with other people who embrace the adventure and freedom of searching for and surrendering to the infusing power of Love.

That’s why my annual trip to the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina is so inspiring and refreshing. To be among thousands of truth and justice seekers, all bathed in mud or dust depending on the year, singing and praying and sharing our stories and struggles — well, that is the Kingdom Come for me.

beer and hymns

Nightly beer & hymns

Sharing stories

Sharing stories

It’s certainly not all happy hymns, there is plenty of struggle and sacrifice and pain in this faith journey. Jesus people are asked to step into the uncomfortable and the countercultural, and we don’t even get a pass from the everyday trials and losses; we just get a different perspective on them. And so it is good to come together to bear witness to the joy and sadness of the journey.

goose crowd

Kingdom Come

This year we had two surprise guests at the Goose, one a young African-American woman and the other an eighty-year-old white guy. Both received standing ovations for their courage, and both spoke of the high cost they have paid for responding to the Holy Spirit of Love.

The Courage to Change your Mind (Repent)

If you’re a Christian, you’ve probably heard of author and evangelical thought-leader Tony Campolo. Or you might have seen him on The Colbert Report. While he is viewed as a relatively progressive evangelical, he’s been outspoken in his opposition to gay marriage. In June, he completely reversed that position and said that he had been wrong.

He was immediately castigated by other evangelical leaders, and long-time friends now refuse to speak to him. His 300 speaking engagements for the year dropped to 30 as the “dis-invitations” rolled in.

Ahhh, Christianity at its judgmental best.

The good news is that because Tony’s speaking engagement for the weekend had been cancelled, he was able to come to the Goose where he was warmly welcomed. A huge tent quickly filled to capacity and hundreds stood outside in the sun, fanning themselves as they listened to him tell his story.

Tony said he had always “accepted” gay people as long as they remained celibate, but as he got to know more gay people and their families, he became increasingly uncomfortable with his position.

“We all said, ‘love the sinner but hate the sin,’ but the thing is, Jesus never said that. Jesus said, ‘Love the sinner and hate your own sin;’ I had to look at myself . . . who am I to deny gay people the same joy and fulfillment I have enjoyed with my wife all these years?” he asked. Indeed.

Tony Campolo (left) and Brian McLaren

Tony Campolo (left) and Brian McLaren

He said that he owed the gay community an apology and acknowledged that he and the church have caused gay people and their loved ones a lot of pain. Tony told stories of courageous pastors who have been standing up for their gay friends and parishioners for years and paying high costs. “I’m eighty years old, I don’t have much to lose. Those are the real heroes.”

This being a loving crowd, Tony stuck around for the whole festival and basked in the acceptance and forgiveness of the Wild Goose community, gay and straight alike.

The Courage to Risk your Life

I would have thought that our other surprise guest would need no introduction, but a lot of folks didn’t know who she was. Bree Newsome — ring a bell? She is featured in this blog I posted a few weeks ago.

Bree is the young African-American woman who scaled the flagpole outside the South Carolina statehouse and took down the confederate flag, quoting scripture all the way up and all the way down and as she was led off to jail.

In the name of God , this flag comes down!

In the name of God , this flag comes down!

Bree and her colleague James Tyson almost didn’t accept the invitation to speak at Wild Goose because they have been threatened with violent retaliation and were nervous about standing in front of a big crowd. “But we decided to come because God is a God of peace, not fear,” Bree told the crowd. Still, they were accompanied by eight low-profile security folks at all times.

The day before Bree arrived, there was a confederate flag emblazoned with a skull flying from a tree on the way into the festival. I’m ashamed to say I did not stop to take it down because I knew someone else would.

Bree spoke of her decision to climb the flagpole as a “crisis of faith moment” for her. After meeting with other activists, she went into a back room alone and prayed. “I got the peace that passes understanding, and I said, ‘OK, Lord, I gotcha — I’m supposed to climb that pole,’ but then I got home and there was my grandmother and my niece, and I thought, ‘Oh Lord, what are you asking me to do? I could die.’ I called my sister at 3 a.m. and said ‘pray for me.’ After that experience, you can’t tell me anything. Christ is real . . . Jesus Christ is one of the biggest agitators ever.”

Bree is deep in the struggle with both feet, and I’m sure she scares the pants off of those who don’t agree with her. She is well-educated, well-spoken, poised, fearless, and driven by a fierce and holy hunger for justice.

“Justice is a way of being that fully recognizes the humanity in all beings,” she told us. “The black struggle is part of the overall struggle for liberation to end oppression itself.”

When someone asked her what legacy she would like to leave, she answered, “I’m not living to leave a legacy for myself. I hope I’m remembered as someone who died doing the work of Christ.”

Bree Newsome and James Tyson: The joy of the Lord is our strength

Bree Newsome and James Tyson: The joy of the Lord is our strength

Bree’s words made me think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was thrown into a concentration camp and then executed by the Nazis for his work against Hitler. He wrote a classic book called The Cost of Discipleship, which was a little heavy-handed for me, but the title raises a question for all of us who call ourselves Christians. What does my faith-life cost me?

See part one: Spirit on the Wing: Scaring the Hell out of Christians

Spirit on the Wing: Scaring the Hell Out of Christians

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Imagine being in a place of profound belonging, of shared vision, of arms-open love, no matter who you are. It’s a serene place on the banks of a wide river, and the music of the river mixes with the sounds of laughter and song all day and into the night. It’s a place that fills you with powerful spiritual energy.

Guess what? It’s real, and you can come visit next summer!

Hope for Justice

I’ve just returned from my third experience of the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. Wild Goose is not just a place, as lovely as it is by the French Broad River, and it’s not just an event, although with several thousand attendees, it certainly is that. Wild Goose is above all a spirit, one with strong wings that will carry me another twelve months until I can be reunited with “my tribe.”

Soul Friends

Soul Friends

Everyone I met felt that way, all remarkable God-lovers who would be official saints if I were in charge of the churches that name saints. Souls who devote their lives to racial justice, visiting prisoners on death row, ending human trafficking, promoting peace in Palestine, forging guns into garden tools, fighting coal plants and climate denial, ending the oppression of gay folks, growing food for the hungry, on and on . . . the work of God.

When these tired travelers gather together each year for four days of music, art, justice, and spirituality, something magical happens: loneliness is banished and hope is restored.

For me, this is what the Christian faith is all about: restoration. Restoring our souls, restoring our connection with creation and with our Creator, restoring our relationships with other humans — even restoring a healthy relationship with death. All reasons for hope.

The Fearful Face of Christianity

Sadly, modern Christianity often leads people away from a sense of loving restoration and into a land of judgement, contempt, and fear — fear of God, fear of hell, and fear of people who think or believe differently — which tragically results in many professed Christians working against justice because they fear empowering “the other” and must defend “their” faith from attack, as if God needs to be protected from dangerous outsiders. 

These fearful folks don’t come to the Goose — there are too many “others” there. Milling around the festival grounds are Christians who don’t believe in a place called Hell, Christians who don’t believe that Jesus had to be slaughtered by his Father so that we could go to heaven, and Christians who don’t believe that their gay loved ones are headed for eternal damnation. I suspect some may actually be gay themselves — gasp!

Aaron

Aaron

There’s meditation. And yoga. And Tai Chi. 

No doubt about it. The Christian establishment — males who base their faith on rules and theories developed by other males ever since Jesus came to teach us how to live a joy-filled life — do not care for Wild Goosers. Their religious paradigm does not allow for thinking or questioning or evolution (in any sense of the word). “God is unchanging,” they argue, which I believe is true, but this doesn’t mean that our understanding of God and the universe shouldn’t evolve: God did invent the human brain. 

The religious establishment rants and rails against progressive “Emergent Christians” and the Wild Goose Festival.

And no wonder. The Wild Goose is the Celtic symbol for the Holy Spirit, an unpredictable, uncontrollable love-power that can topple establishments and result in all kinds of rule-breaking — in the tradition of the historical Jesus, I might add.

This woman is clearly trouble.

This woman is clearly trouble

An Ongoing Story

I’m not good at doing serial blog posts; I tend to peter out after two. “Lessons from the Fall” that broke my arm and observations from my Desert Pilgrimage in April are still awaiting their third installments.

Nevertheless, you’re in for at least a couple of posts. This year’s Goose hosted several surprise guests right out of the headlines, and I have pages of notes from workshops and dialogues. The Wild Goose deserves full attention, both for what it means to me personally in my faith-walk and for what I believe it could mean for the future of Christianity and thus the world.

The Goose is on the wing!

DSCN4422Related links:

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/wild-goose-part-one-celebration-sexuality/

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2014/07/16/wild-goose-part-two-mud-music-and-exploding-head-syndrome/

https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/justice-scalia-meet-spirituality/

Justice Scalia, Meet Spirituality

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Everybody’s all atwitter, alarmed or amused by Justice Antonin Scalia’s silly suggestion to “ask the nearest hippie” about freedom and intimacy. But I’m more dismayed by his admission that he doesn’t have a clue what spirituality means. Really?

That a Supreme Court justice hasn’t paid any attention to society in the past, oh, four decades, is troublesome — he’s apparently still stewing about “free sex” and “women’s lib.” But that a man who prides himself on his “traditional Christian values” has never in his life bothered to ponder spirituality is horrifying.

Let me back up for those of you who may have been stoned and having illicit sex under a peace-sign-covered VW van instead of following the latest news.

In his dissent last week from the historic 5-4 Supreme Court decision to allow marriage equality for gay people, Scalia took issue with the gay-hippie-liberal-flag-burning lawyers on the equality side who opined that: “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons together can find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality.”

Scalia’s response to this: “Really? Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality [whatever that means] were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

So yeah, the hippie reference is funny, the kind of thing your grumpy grandpa might say. But as a follower of Jesus and one who reads the Bible, the spirituality thing sends me over the rainbow, so to speak.

The Spirit of the Bible

I suppose I should not be surprised that Scalia doesn’t get spirituality. He comes from a time period when adolescents simply took the behavioral rules their parents taught them (disguised as values) and their black leather Bibles, and decided they had all the answers they would ever need. About everything.

But the Bible, Justice Scalia, is not an answer book. It’s a story book, part of the story of humans and their God, a story that started long before anybody wrote down the words, and a story that continues today.

In the beginning was the Spirit

In the beginning was the Spirit

Let’s not argue about the inerrancy of the Bible, though. Even if it were an answer book, remember how it starts? In the first sentence of Genesis, it says “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Spirit. Of God.

And the very same spirit that hovered over the waters and that inspired humans to write that beautiful book is still around today! That’s right, Justice Scalia. The Spirit of God is still working. And the story of God and humanity continues to be written every day by every human being who has a longing for peace and wholeness and justice.

So that’s what spirituality is, in my opinion. People of good will — people wanting to bring good to the world, and willing to work for it — seeking a power greater than themselves to give them the inspiration, guidance, and strength to persevere as they slowly bend that “arc of history,” as Martin Luther King said, “toward justice.” Some of these people call themselves Christians, some don’t.

An awful lot of spirit-led people have been hanging on the end of that arc for a long time, pulling and pulling it towards compassion and justice for all people. It bent quite a bit last week.

Speaking of hanging on the arc of justice, did you see this video of Bree Newsome taking down the confederate flag in Charleston? (What a week!) Did you hear what she said? As she hung from the flagpole and removed that flapping symbol of racism, she called out, “In the name of God, this flag comes down today . . . the Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?”

In the name of God, this flag comes down!

In the name of God , this flag comes down!

That’s spirituality, Justice Scalia. Christian spirituality. That, right there, is someone connected to the power and the strength of the Holy Spirit.

Fear of Love

I personally think that the only power strong enough to conquer fear (which leads to anger and hate) is love. Fear comes from not knowing, not understanding, not being in control — many people are afraid of gay people, black people, and even spirituality for these reasons.

The Spirit of God is a fearful thing in some ways. You can’t control it. Like love. (The Bible says that God is love.) As Jesus says in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Our little ego-selves — the defensive shells we’ve built around our vulnerable, loving selves — don’t like this windy spirit one bit. The ego needs to maintain its illusion of control, and to hold fast to its world views, so that it can sit in judgment on everyone else. And have all the answers. Our egos — our “false selves” as Thomas Merton called them — don’t care for authentic spirituality. They prefer religion and its prescriptive rules; it’s easier to control. All in one book. Feels safer.

Why Would Jesus Do?

Turns out, though, Jesus did not come to establish a religion or to write a book. He came to help us better know and connect with God so that we all “might have life, and have it to the full,” a life with the freedom and dignity to be fully who we were made to be and who we already are: beloved children of God, carrying that wild spirit inside us. Yup, even gay people. And hippies.

And speaking of hippies  . . .

And speaking of hippies . . .

Jesus also said that he could help us all be One, reconciled to God and to everyone else through what he called the Spirit of Truth. He told his followers that this spirit would “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Such as “love your neighbors” and “set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

Something that Jesus never said, by the way, was one word about homosexuality. Not one word. If it were important to him, wouldn’t he have mentioned it?

So my closing argument, Justice Scalia, is that, yes, it’s risky when you acknowledge the Spirit and pay attention to where it might be leading you. It opens you up to all kinds of people who aren’t like you, and you find yourself looking for points of connection, things to love, instead of differences and things that separate you. You might even have to change your mind about some things.

The Bible says that “the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

I think those might be nice qualities in a Supreme Court Justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gr-mt1P94cQ

Writing Challenge: The Story of John

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John had been here before, a long time ago. I watch as his eyes follow the train tracks into a copse of trees. His chocolate brown pupils have turned milky with age and look almost purple against the bloodshot whites.

“That was almost sixty years ago,” he says dreamily.

Then he straightens his shoulders, hitches up his belted black dress pants shiny with wear, and looks directly at me. “That’s when God put his hand on me and called me back,” he says with a vigorous nod.

John knows the moment he left God. He was fourteen, living in a small town in North Carolina not far from where his family had been enslaved a few generations before. One Sunday after church, John opined to his mama that he didn’t think he believed in the God that Granny’s pastor talked about, “the one who sends people to Hell and tells us we are despicable creatures. No sir, I didn’t know that God.”

“Mama whipped me good that time,” he said. But he was used to it. His mother often disappeared, going on drinking binges and leaving him alone for days at a time, only to beat him when she returned.

A few days later, still sore from the thrashing, John stepped out of a movie theater into the bright afternoon sunlight. His guilt-ridden mama had treated him to the show. “All the white folks were on the ground floor and all us blacks were up above. I decided it should not be like that. Things were wrong. That’s when I decided to go where the train goes.”

Going where the train goes...

Going where the train goes…

That’s also when John told his first lie. He asked a man outside the theater to give him a lift to the depot, and told him he had permission from his mother.

Then John hopped a train.

“Just like that,” he said. “My mama kept disappearing, so I disappeared.”

Enslavement and Liberation

By the time I noticed we were walking, we were some distance down the tracks. John was striding from tie to tie as if his feet had rediscovered an old familiar pathway, like fingers recalling a musical instrument after a lifetime away. I trailed behind.

“I had to lie again when I got to Raleigh,” John said over his shoulder. “I told the man at the depot I was sixteen and that my parents had died.” The man helped John find a job on one condition: that he go back to school. “Yes sir, God had his hand on me all along.” John shakes his head in wonder.

He stayed in school and worked afternoons at a hot dog stand. On Sundays, he would make good money selling wine and whiskey from behind his stand. “Soon enough I couldn’t do without the stuff; I was an alcoholic just like Mama.”

John slows his gait and looks up and down the tracks and over at the copse of trees. “Right about here,” he says, stopping,”right here.”

“One night I was sitting by the tracks — here — with another wino, wondering where we were going to find the money for more booze. All of a sudden, I see he’s crying. I asked him, ‘What’s the matter, Pokey? Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get more wine before we go to sleep.’

‘It’s not that,’ Pokey answered. ‘It’s you I’m worried about — you’re not going to make it.'”

John is silent for a while, as if reliving that conversation.

“That was my low point, yes it was,” he says finally. He toes the dust with his black lace-up shoe. “I thought about it all night. After that I went to an AA meeting and had a miracle. God took away my desire for alcohol. It’s more than drinking, it’s liberation . . . that’s where I found the true God.”

Pokey went to a few meetings with John, but he’s the one who didn’t make it. “He died of alcoholism in his forties,” John says, “but he saved my life.”

* * * * * *

Based on a true story (John’s name has been changed) and in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, which this week offered a selection of photographs and introductory lines to kick off a story. I chose the train tracks and a variation of “I had been here before, a long time ago.” Photo credit: Cheri Lucas Rowlands/The Daily Post.

Part II — In Which Grief is Surprised by Joy

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Let me begin by apologizing to my atheist and aggressively agnostic friends for using the word “gospel” in yesterday’s post. I try not to annoy you, but it’s going to get worse. I need to tell this story; Betsy would want it told.

Also, Betsy is the one who introduced me to the author Anne Lamott, and Anne Lamott is the one who showed me that a person can write about Jesus and faith without being obnoxious. And face it, trying to write a blog journal about grief without incorporating one’s beliefs about spirituality is downright silly.

Anne Lamott -- One of Betsy's Faves

Anne Lamott — One of Betsy’s Faves

So: Jesus alert. Keep reading or not, as you like.

When we left our hero yesterday (that’s me,) she had just realized that if Betsy’s spirit was so obviously hovering around, then perhaps her recently departed brother’s was as well. But she wasn’t so sure and told her journal: “Somehow that makes it almost possible to allow myself to believe that Biff’s spirit is also still with me. Almost. Too good to hope for in a way. Too good to be true. Do I believe in Jesus or not?”

It seemed relatively easy for me to accept the truth of Betsy’s living spirit because the risk was not great. She was not my flesh and blood. I have known her twenty years, not fifty-eight. Stitching together the rip in the fabric of my identity left by Biff’s passing is trickier work, and I don’t want to be knitting it together with yarn that won’t hold up.

I decided to take the risk: I’d seek out Biff’s spirit, too. More from my journal: “And so I told God that I am ready to accept Biff’s love, to welcome his spirit to accompany me, to live in me and through me. To let us have a continuing relationship, to not close the book, to let him speak to me and show me signs. I told God I knew it meant pain, but that I didn’t want to be without Biff. Ever. That I would open myself to his presence and his company, forever.”

Here comes the Jesus part . . .

And then it hit me: that is exactly what God asks us to do. To accept Jesus’s loving spirit and allow him to accompany us, to live in us and through us. To have a relationship, to let God show us signs through that living spirit.  Forever.

And yes, opening to that spirit does mean pain, because Jesus softens our hearts to the world’s pain and so we share his deep sadness about the brokenness in the world. That spirit also convicts us of our own brokenness, and that can be humbling and at times mortifying.

winter 2013 & Jesus pix 045.tear

But the pain encourages growth and makes us more loving people. And oh, the joy of being one with that spirit of love!

We get to say yes or no to allowing that eternal, loving spirit to accompany us. If you say yes, I believe you become more and more aligned with God’s perfectly loving spirit here in this physical world, the way Betsy did.

The famous prayer asks God to bring that kingdom of love and kindness “. . . on earth as it is in Heaven . . .” and that’s what Christians should be about. (I’m certainly the first to acknowledge that many Christian spokespeople in the public life do not appear to be living in that spirit.)

When we’re truly tapped into the wisdom and power of God’s eternal loving spirit, we can’t help but bring Heaven’s love to earth right here and now. And when we “die,” we get to leave behind the last traces of fear and live in that perfect love forever.

With Apologies to My Conservative Christian Friends

Now I have to apologize to my conservative Christian friends – heretic alert! (I may have lost my atheist readers by now, but I know that you’ll keep reading because you need to decide if I’m going to hell.)

If a person chooses not to accept God’s invitation to travel together, I don’t think that person is going to Hell. Gasp! In fact, I don’t even believe in the old concept of Hell, the I-love-you-so-much-that-I’m-going-to-fry-you-forever-if-you-don’t-love-me-back narrative. I don’t blame people for not believing in that God.

This is Love?

No — I think that you are traveling with God whether you know it or not, accept it or not. You are accompanied and loved and cared for, and you aren’t going to burn. God’s spirit lives in everyone and they get to open the channel or keep their heart closed.

When a person says, “No thanks, I don’t believe in you,” they don’t burn up. No, they just miss the joyful awareness, the signs, and the “nudges” that send us on God-inspired adventures that we might otherwise miss. They miss the spiritual guidance that helps us find our purpose and meaning in God’s larger story if we listen. Worst of all, if we don’t open to God’s spirit, we might miss the fact that we are all one, that there is nothing to fear, that there is no existential aloneness, and there is no death.

We come into this world connected by an umbilical cord of love and we leave this world connected to a cord of divine love that runs through all time and out of time. Biff and Betsy have followed that cord of love out of sight, but we are still connected. And that brings me joy, which makes me want to dye my hair pink like Betsy’s and celebrate life for all it’s worth.

I wish each of you love and connection and joy.

“God is love.”

Sermon done.

Joyful Betsy and her husband Eric

Joyful Betsy and her husband Eric

A Woman’s Peace

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“Ultimately we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. The more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.”

A Haunting Challenge

These words come from Etty Hillesum, who died in a Nazi concentration camp when she was 29 years old. She had “an old soul,” as they say — wisdom beyond her years. We will never know what peace she might have brought to the world had she not been murdered. Yet she offered a haunting challenge as she pondered the annihilation of her people:

“I wish I could live for a long time so that one day I may know how to explain it, and if I am not granted that wish, well, then somebody else will perhaps do it, carry on from where my life has been cut short…”

Photo: Etty Hillesum


Etty Hillesum

Wow – “then somebody else will perhaps do it.” W ell, I can’t explain the Holocaust for Etty, but I can try to do my “one moral duty” by reclaiming peace within my soul and hoping some of it will transfer to the world. I do believe this is our moral duty. I’ve heard it said that “hurt people will hurt people,” and I’ve certainly found that to be true. We must each take responsibility for healing our own hurting hearts.

Wounds we received in childhood may still be causing emotional reactions today, and unless we become aware of that and seek healing and peace, we’ll just be dumping our crap all over everyone else.

For the rest of our lives.

Women in Peace

I am a member of Bloggers for Peace, and as such, I have committed to post every month on the topic of peace. March being Women’s History Month, I thought I would take a brief look at women’s roles in the movement for world peace. As it turns out, it isn’t possible to do that briefly. I’d have to write a tome.

Instead of the tome (I can hear you all now, “tome, tome, tome!”), I’m sharing Etty’s story with you.

Etty’s efforts to nurture peace in her heart resulted in a profound attitude of love, hope, and gratitude, which it’s hard to imagine could survive in a concentration camp.

“Sometimes when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet planted on earth, my eyes raised towards heaven, tears run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude.”

“I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts.”

I hope you’ll read more about Etty at Gratefulness.org

Nurturing Change

How are we doing at realizing Etty Hillesum’s dream that “a new and kinder day” was coming?

According to the Eisenhower Research Project, between 152,280 – 192,550 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan as a result of the fighting since 9/11. More than seven million people have become refugees. The numbers speak for themselves.

Sometimes it’s hard to hope. War seems to be an inevitable part of the human experience, and peace is certainly not inevitable in this world. It’s something we must pray for, wait for, work for. We must intentionally nurture it from within, growing what the Bible calls the “fruits of the spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Women know a little about waiting and praying and growing things inside themselves.

I am a firm believer in the power of inner peace to transform the world. It has to start with the individual. Perhaps I’m naive, but what’s the point of living if we can’t be at peace with ourselves and make a positive difference in the world?

For me, inner peace also includes action. For instance, if I ate meat, I know my heart would not be at peace. I would see that as waging war on animals. (I’m not judging you, I’m talking about my own heart.)

I volunteer for projects that help heal our planet, I participate in peace marches, and I help feed homeless people. That’s activism, yes, it adds to the goodness in the world. But the action itself is also good for the peace of my soul.

I like how poet and human rights activist Staceyann Chin puts it: “Every day I get better at knowing that it is not a choice to be an activist; rather, it is the only way to hold on to the better parts of my human self. It is the only way I can live and laugh without guilt.”

You can check out the stories of nine women who made peace activism a way of life and won the Nobel Peace Prize as a result, including Baroness Bertha von Suttner, without whom there might not even be a Nobel Peace Prize.

A Reason to Hope

One last story of hope for peace. My friend Nate Haken is active with Partners for Peace, a  network of individuals and organizations dedicated to promoting peace in the Niger Delta. Part of what they do is identify and celebrate local peace-building initiatives, like the one called “Mothers for Peace” in Rivers State.This group of wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters takes direct action to intervene when conflicts break out in their communities. Carrying palm fronds, they march right into the conflict, waving their branches and singing songs of peace. Below is a short video about these women.

As they wave their palm fronds in the face of war, these women continue to spread Etty’s brave and peaceful spirit in the world.

Related Links:

http://bloggers4peace.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/kozo-cheri-asks-that-you/

http://bloggers4peace.wordpress.com/about/

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