Pull Up a Chair. It’s Beautiful.

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Blessed be the wide-open field spread out before me. Lilies dance in the sunshine. Wind blows life throughout the vast expanse, even as the hours slow and the days pass without counting.

I didn’t know my path would hold this open field. I was as surprised as any, but we know that life comes with no map. The Guide only whispers a steady stream of reassurances: “Behold. This day is one you’ve never seen before.”

The journey has held twists and turns, long paths that stretch for as long as the eye can see, and switch-backs that left me nauseous and confused. The canopy of trees has provided shade and contained mysteries, the horizon hidden from view.

For now, the horizon is infinite. The dirt trail dissipated as I walked it.  I know that trail holds steady behind us, always there when I need to remember how I got here.  All I can see are tall grasses, wildflowers of yellow, blue, lilac. The Guide gets quiet right as we emerge. No more “Keep going.” 

Instead, she pulls up two chairs, and we sit down, a few paces into the expanse. Adjacent, we look out and take it all in.  We consider the lilies, how they grow. There is no toil nor spin. We are as astonished as Solomon would be.

From here, I can see what is beyond the field – new canopies of branches interwoven together. It entices my curiosity, but I am in no hurry. To run ahead would be to abandon the Guide. If I have learned anything along the way, it is this: I have no interest in traveling without her. The Guide’s eyes see what mine fail to notice; her ears tuned to the wild; her compass points to places I yearn for but cannot articulate. She knows The Way while I live on the cusp of even imagining it all.

Blessed be the Guide who sits with me. She is kind and gentle, and her fierce sense of adventure is as ethereal as corporeal. “Here is where we shall dwell for a time. Now we catch our breath,” she says, with birdsong accompanying this season’s instructions. She might be the wise one who heard there is treasure here, selling all that she has to buy the field that holds it.

Knowing that resting after a long season of travel can be as discomforting as relieving, she assures me as the hours pass. “Fear not the stillness, even as other travelers call out from their path in the woods. Begrudge not the time and its passing. When the sun goes down on the field, we’ll tune our senses so that our ears can pick up what our eyes cannot.  Here is where some tomorrow will begin. The beauty we witness here will transform into the very muscle and heartbeat which will carry us on when the time comes, for the field is the birthplace of our next adventure.  But for now, bless the chair which holds you. Bless the beautiful field which is ours to behold. Bless the beholding as your new job, for which you were ordained all those years ago.”

Dear friend, know that I am spending my days lost in wonder. The field is neither mine nor the chair in which I rest, but I dwell with the Guide as she dwells with me. It might take a lifetime before we begin again – blessed, rested, and ready to rise.  Until then, you’re welcome to come to visit. Pull up a chair and join us as we pause and give thanks for the dirt trail behind us, the field before us, and the horizon beyond us. Blessed be the friends who sit with me and declare, with grins on our faces: It’s beautiful.

A Blessing of Assurance

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Written for Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, for my last Sunday with a black robe

Come on, Family of God. Lace up your shoes and link arms. Whether this blessing finds you curious or complacent, stubborn or sick, melancholy or melodramatic, wounded or weary. Rise as one on your feet: forgiveness has changed the landscape. 

The impossible journey has become possible.

Let this collective assurance sink deep enough so that our bodies know this to be true: this very breath is enough taste of the Kin-dom come as we need to get going. Let’s be in on the secret and breathe together.

In the quiet, hear it: the roar of the saints who have gone before us, reverberating on the stone walls. The intensity of their voices need not frighten us. They are cheering us on, fully invested in our every twist and turn.

Now that we know each step to be a gift; now that we know ourselves to be surrounded, we rise eagerly for all that God has in store for us – the places that will come to define us, the people who will amaze us, the obstacles that will call forth courage not our own, the dreams outrageous enough to fit the promises we carry.

Side by side, let’s take it slow, remembering that it’s hard to witness The One Whom We Hallow when we sprint through our days.

Patiently and expectantly, Go boldly as God’s people on the move. Sing hymns in full voice. Ask good questions. Pause regularly to lean in and say, “Tell me more.” Develop the daily practice of accepting forgiveness as you offer it to others.

When you feel alone, remind each other: No matter the road, we walk it together.

Blessed be the Journey forgiveness makes possible.
Blessed be the Holy Companions with whom we watch for the morning.
Blessed be the Cloud of Witnesses who sound the trumpet, telling us it’s time to rise.

Blessed assurance all along the way.

A Blessing for Pastor Mary Alice

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Upon the Occasion of the Installation of Rev. Mary Alice Birdwhistell as Highland’s 17th Pastor
Inspired by Mary Alice’s benediction, her favorite phrases, and Highland’s Hymn (“Look You Saints, the Cloud of Witness” written by John Dickson)

May God’s Love Surround You

When the way twists and turns, surprising you with the unexpected, worry not, Pastor Mary Alice. You are moving through your days surrounded by the Family of God in this place. You take brave steps alongside fellow travelers, moving as one with our God, as those of old. Whether preaching to empty pews, greeting the church behind a mask, or working alone in your office, you are encircled, encompassed, surrounded. With you, before you, behind you, beneath you, God’s love is ever present, ever near, ever real.

May Christ’s Mercy Astound You

When the way grows tedious and tiresome, wearing you down, prepare yourself, Pastor Mary Alice. Great Surprises are God’s specialty. We know this for sure: when One Body moves surrounded by God’s love, we are always on the verge of stumbling onto Christ’s Mercy which changes how, what, and who we see.  As the sun rises with each day, so, too, does God, the Great Surpriser, sow in us seeds whose fruit will feed generations to come. For all the unknown beauty yet to be revealed, the stories yet to be lived, we sound the trumpets as you lead us in taking big brave steps, following the Author of our faith.

May the Spirit Abound in You

When the way reveals unmet needs and hungry crowds, get creative, Pastor Mary Alice. The Spirit’s abounding has been at work since time began, nurturing gifts within the Family of God that, when invited to share, can feed a world in need. Spend your days calling out the gifts you see within us.  Set aside the scarcity that strangles and lead us on the journey, swift of foot and brave of soul. Live with wide-open eyes that can see the Spirit at work, transforming our loaves and fish into a story our grandchildren will pass on to the next generation – for stories of courage, surprise, and love are the ones that endure the longest.

With the cloud of witnesses gathered ‘round this sacred place, we bless Pastor Mary Alice.
We rise as one to take brave steps forward as the family of God,
Surrounded by God’s love, Astounded by Christ’s mercy, and Abounding in the Spirit.

No Place But Here

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“There is no place you need to be but here” has become a centering phrase for me over the past few months. Gretchen Ziegenhals from Duke Leadership began our past two “Seek the Welfare” cohort gatherings with the words. Each time her gentle voice said it, voices in my head tried to argue with her. I was sitting on Zoom for four hours, three days in a row. Of course, there were other places I needed to be. But I would repeat it back to myself until it settled in. There is no place you need to be but here.

It’s a phrase that evokes active patience. It takes courageous endurance to be right here.

This week has been one of the strangest weeks of my life. We flew to South Dakota for vacation last Friday, and then on Sunday, while we rode a train into Keystone, my letter went out to the congregation sharing the news that I’ve sensed God’s call to close my chapter as associate pastor at Highland Baptist. It was a decision that came to me at the end of June, whose timing to come out to the congregation coincides with our already scheduled vacation. There were moments this week when I felt like I had blown up my life and fled for the Black Hills. When I described that feeling to a friend, she texted back, “It was always going to be awkward.” She was right – it was always going to feel strange.

With each morning’s sunrise, I stole out to our front porch for a few moments alone, and I spoke it aloud to myself: There is no place I need to be but here.  Trusting God’s voice on this internal journey, I know that there is no place I need to be but here at the beginning of an ending.  Here is the beginning of in-between time.  Here is the threshold moment, when I have initiated change, the news has reached the congregation, and a new relationship with this people of God is on the horizon.

I have had this unique gift of serving the church in which I grew up. Highland began calling forth my gifts at the young age of 22, just out of college. Highland shaped me over the past 15 years in ways that it’s going to take time to know fully. This beloved community of faith and I have been knit together by both task and salary, identity and story, full-voice hymns, and honest story-telling.  

Six years ago, during a time of vocational discernment, I received the sense that God has called me to a people rather than a position. Specifically, God called me the people who gather at Grinstead and Cherokee within the stone walls of Highland Baptist Church. I moved from a position as Minister to Youth into Associate Pastor of Faith Formation and Congregational Engagement. Now, I move from one of Highland’s pastors to one of Highland’s priesthood of all believers.  

When I told our kids over dinner on our cabin’s front porch surrounded by the Black Hills, they started using the language of “retirement.” A few years ago, our senior pastor and senior associate pastor retired, so it’s the only language they have for a moment like this. Clearly, I’m not retirement age, and my vocational life isn’t over at age 37, but there is a real sense that something sacred is coming to a close.

As this change approaches, I am moving through the present moment with vulnerability and tenderness. Emotions and thoughts fill me – many of which coincide even as they appear to contradict. I grieve initiating an ending to this sacred work alongside the people, both laity and staff, who provide my life with shared meaning and joy-filled connection. At the same time, I rejoice that I have been more at ease than I have been in years, as the mantle of ministry at a church so embedded within my soul and life story has been both gift and labor to carry. There is no place I need to be but here – here in these muddled feelings, present to even this sacred season that hurts and releases.

I’ve got a lot of personal work ahead of me as I process the ending of this season. I have no idea what comes next, which is, peculiarly, a piece of why I am leaving now before seeking another job. I discerned this summer that my ties with Highland are so vast, deep, and wide that I cannot imagine a next vocational call until I enter into a season of vocational stillness. This fall, I hope to begin my in-between time by reflecting upon these fifteen years, processing through my memories, discerning the lessons, gifts, and stories that I will carry into the next chapter.

I am sure of this truth, even amidst a foggy South Dakota morning: what matters most is that what remains even after the ending. I cannot rush this season, nor do I want to. There is no place I need to be but here.

We board our plane momentarily for home, where I will enter into a month where I will transition tasks to others, find space for my black robe in my home closet, clean out my office, and turn in my keys. Then in September, the real work begins: pausing and giving thanks for the love that remains.

There is no place I need to be but here. Thanks be to God.

A Blessing for Your Rising

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Written for a Lenten Live-Stream with Highland Baptist. Inspired by Isaiah 35 and the Tanzanian Guides who told us over and over again as we climbed Kilimanjaro in 2010: Pole-Pole.

Was it just yesterday that you fell down?
Or was it a thousand years ago?
Both feel true today.

Look! The crocus blooms stubbornly in the wilderness.
Now is the time for your rising.

Go slowly, dear friend.
We’re not in a rush.
Pole-Pole.

Feel every ripple of hope as it comes.
Give your eyes time to adjust, for everything looks different now.
Pole-Pole.

Patiently, gently you rise.
Strength surprises you.
Pole-Pole.

Joy is on the horizon.
A familiar tune comes to mind.
Pole-Pole.

Take this rising quietly.
We’ve got forever to make it.
Pole-Pole.

Move at tortoise pace and trust that
the momentum is the miracle,
not the speed with which you rise.
Pole-pole

Before you,
Surrounding you,
Within you,
Beyond you,
Here,
Right here
The Holy Way is emerging.

This is where you will practice resurrection,
In the rising.

Weak hands push against the ground.
Feeble knees bend and stretch.
Wounded heart beats loud in your chest.

Here you are, rising stubbornly,
Blessed with resilience in the wilderness.
Pole-pole.

Remembering Our Baptism

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I shared these words with Highland this Sunday morning as part of our marking of Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1. May you remember your baptism with compassion for your former self, your present self, and your future self – all of which are immersed in the grace of our baptismal waters.

In your home today as you worship, I invite you to remember your baptism. How did the water feel?  Warm?  Cold?  Flowing?  Stagnant? What thoughts filled your mind? How fast did your heart race? Was it conviction that led you to the water?    The Holy Spirit nudging you? Or custom?  Tradition?  The desire to escape the flames of hell that your pastor described with spit flying out of his mouth every Sunday? Is that what conviction looked like back then to you?

What were you hoping was going to happen in the waters?
Were you expecting to feel different when the pastor lifted you up?
What were the lunch plans to follow?  Gifts you anticipated coming along with this moment?

For many of us, remembering our baptism causes us to recall our ignorance – just how naïve we were. There was so much we did not know.  There was so much we did not understand.

I want you to return to the waters with me this Sunday as we pray. As I pray, I want you to imagine getting back in those baptismal waters alongside that former self – the one you were when you were baptized.

What would you want to tell him or her or them?
What embrace would you offer? Words would you say?
What would you want to say to the pastor who baptized you?
If you didn’t feel safe with that pastor, you may need to ask him to leave the baptistry before we pray.

Let’s begin our prayer with a moment of silent reflection.

God who holds all of time together in divine harmony – smoothing out the edges with grace, mercy, understanding that is beyond our capacity to hold,

  • Show us how to love our former selves with tender compassion –
    • admiring our courage to publicly proclaim faith and get drenched in public
    • forgiving ourselves for all we did not know
    • wrapping ourselves with the grace that became our birthright in these waters.
  • Strengthen us to love our present selves with tender courage.
    • Dare us to quit again whatever new self-saving attempts that we have adopted over the years.
    • Dare us to accept forgiveness and live in humble recognition of You, surrendering over all we cannot control and realizing that the world is better for it.
  • Prepare us to love our future selves with tender devotion –
    • imagining our future selves standing with us in the baptismal waters,
    • forgiving us for all we do not know today,
    • wrapping us with the grace that is our birthright all the way to the end

We pray to You, for we know now that we cannot will You into being but that You will us into being – filled with grace and truth – and we are free. We declare our faith: Jesus Christ is Lord – our crucified and risen Lord.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we baptize and we pray, Amen.

Be assured, baptized community – those who have been baptized before and those whom God is calling even now to enter the waters. Here in the waters, we are buried with Christ and raised by the Spirit to walk in the resurrection life of the new creation.

We are baptized into the mystery of God’s drenching presence. God smiles as we let go of the burdens we bear on our shoulders and choose again to follow Jesus – going where we would not go on our own, loving people we could not love out of our own goodwill, defying powers and principalities that cannot be defied by human willpower and strength alone.

God smiles as we embrace our identity as we rise from the water – new creations, belonging to Christ, who practice resurrection daily. We are one body – the baptized family of God – whose past is healed, future secure, present wide open and wild with resurrection hope. Let us sing our faith.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Vastness Within

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For the joy of creating purely for pleasure, without necessity or deadline, and for finding language to express truths which make me breathe easier, I picked up off my shelf Lightning Paths: 75 Poetry Writing Exercises by Kyle Vaughn. I purchased it years ago after Krista Tippett recommended it, but I had never truly explored it. Yesterday afternoon on the back porch seemed like the right time.

The first “exercise” was to be inspired by Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  The task: “Write a poem in which thirteen small sections reflect different ways we might see something.”

Using Stevens’ format and even some of his language (especially parts V and XIII), I wrote about the “largeness within” that has stuck with me ever since I finished Sue Monk Kidd’s The Book of Longings. There’s a line in Anna’s incantation bowl that has been swirling around my soul ever since I read it: “Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it.”

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Vastness Within

I.

My words and smile go forth beyond me,
but it is the vastness inside of me that
breathes deep and blows magic into the world.

II.

We think we have seen the ocean,
But our eyes fool us into contentment.
Eighty percent of the majesty is below the surface.

III.

At the sound of its waves, the leisure-starved
Close their eyes and breathe for the first time in months.

IV.

The vast ocean and my limited frame are one.
There is only one reality, and it is ours to explore.
This is our little secret.

V.

I do not know which to prefer,
That which I can never know
Or that which is within reach,
The mystery of the depths
Or the feel of water lapping on my toes.

VI.

Packed bags, stuffed with tomorrow’s laundry,
Carry all the beach gear home, after serving its annual purpose.
Is sand still in between my toes?
I glance out the window to catch one final glimpse.
An ache grows deep inside.
How do you keep existing while I live all year without breathing?

VII.

O disconsolate land-locked captives,
Do you know that the vastness lives inside of you?
Your wonder is packed away with the sand shovel,
Even though there is still an opportunity for snorkeling out in the deep blue within.

VIII.

I know one hundred and fifty ways to get a three-year-old to sleep.
I know one hundred and fifty ways to help a congregation make a decision.
I know not where I begin and end, but I know You
And that is more intense wisdom than can ever be explored in one lifetime.

IX.

When I close my eyes, I can still hear the ebb and flow of the water.
It whispers of all the peculiar, spectacular beings
Which continue their work while I sleep.

X.

At the sight of every color ever seen,
And some never seen, radiant upon the water,
The wounded are healed,
The murdered revived.

XI.

A mother scans the water with anxious eyes, looking for her son.
Spotting his alighted eyes and hands splashing God’s handiwork,
She breathes deeply until the next wave comes.

XII.

My lungs expand with a prolonged breath.
The ocean must be settling.

XIII.

It was morning all day long.
The waters breathed deep.
I am home, at last, and will
never be able to be found.

Freedom to Be In the Dark, Filled with Grace and Power

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Inspired by…

book thiefRe-reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and thinking about all that children are capable of enduring and surviving.

“He came in every night and sat with her. The first couple of times, he simply stayed – a stranger to kill the aloneness.  A few nights after that, he whispered, ‘Shhhhh, I’m here, it’s all right.’ After three weeks, he held her. Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness, his thereness. The girl knew from the outset that Hans Hubermann would always appear midscream, and he would not leave.”

Acts 6-7: Stephen described as “filled with grace and power”

This season of “healthy at home” when some children are home but not surrounded by health.

 

To all the Liesels living through this pandemic with silent suffering and a small hope still burning within you: Continue reading

Freedom to Be Changed

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IMG_2816In line with Highland Baptist’s “Freedom to Be” series, here are some reflections on our Freedom to be Changed – inspired by Acts 2:14a, 36-41, where we see people find freedom as they are changed – repenting and being baptized.  So much has changed for us that joyfully choosing to be changed feels difficult to grasp.

I held this irony while reading a book recently delivered by Carmichaels Bookstore (grateful!) of another woman who has lived through pandemics.  After giving up her free life to become an anchoress (a life of “sheltering in place” in the church for prayer), Julian of Norwich discovers a rich and abundant spiritual life. Her inner life and religious devotion have intrigued and inspired centuries of fellow mystics. In her “Revelations,” Julian writes the following:

“God wishes to be known, and God delights that we remain in God, because all that is less than God is not enough for us.

And this is the reason why no soul is at rest until it is tempted of everything that is created.

When the soul is willingly emptied for love in order to have God who is all, then is it able to receive spiritual rest.

Also our Lord God showed that it is full great pleaseure to God that an innocent soul come to God nakedly and plainly and simply. For this is the natural yearning of the soul, thanks to the touching of the Holy Spirit, according to the understanding that I have in this showing –

God of Thy Goodness, give me Thyself;
for Thou art enough to me,
and I can ask nothing that is less
that can be full honor to Thee.
And if I ask anything that is less,
ever shall I be in want,
for only in Thee have I all.”

Julian: When they closed the door to your cell, how aware were you of all that you had given up? Did you linger in that last hug with your parents? Did you properly soak in the sights and sounds of all the familiar places, actively storing up memories? Continue reading

Freedom to Be Wrong

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FREEDOM_to be-hi-resIn line with Highland Baptist’s “Freedom to Be” series, here are some reflections on our Freedom to be Wrong – inspired by Acts 2:14a, 22-32, where we see that all the wrong-doings of humanity within and around the crucifixion could not stop Jesus’ power and God’s glory.

When the call first comes, it can be intoxicating to feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders. Created in God’s image, we relish at the moment when we think we are on the precipice of doing something – something we know will affect change. We have a chance! We are determined to shift the powers, bring down the arrogant, lift up the lowly, save the lost, redeem the broken, right the world back to its originally intended goodness. Continue reading