Am I Fit?

I have an amazing ability to push down my feelings, but as I get older, I am finding that keeping them down is much harder than it used to be. They keep popping up for air and intruding on whatever else it is I am doing. This morning, I wanted to simply enjoy the silky feel of after-storm air and the lightness of really having nothing to do with my day but read a good book. Worry, fear, anger, and dismay kept surfacing and for no obvious  reason, I found my mind full of clouds, my stomach a roiling, boiling mess of toil and trouble, and my breath caught high up in a chest clamped down prepared to hold its breath until I was past the worst of it.

I don’t know about you, but I keep coming across all these little aphorisms that say things like, “do not worry,” or “worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.” On days like today, those kinds of helpful phrases infuriate me. I am trying to take joy in the day, but worry won’t leave me alone, and I apparently haven’t been doing my willpower sit-ups so the iron-hard mental muscles needed to keep it at bay have gotten all soft and flabby. I end up feeling like a loser and failure as well as suffering from whatever it is that ails me.

Except, I know better. I know that these feelings (worry, fear, anger, dismay) I am trying to push down are actually gifts, guides, and helpers. They are not unwanted intruders. They are the black sheep of the family, and they are telling me that something important is going on inside that needs my attention. What’s more, they and I all know there is no good purpose served by flexing those will-power muscles to lock the door. Everybody in the family knows right where we hide the extra key.

So, instead of ignoring the feelings, I sat down and I journaled, and what started to come out was a lot of self-talk about how I need to “work harder,” “buckle down,” “suck it up,” and “accept facts.” Even though everything is very stable in my life right now, my household is preparing for significant change, and there are a lot of unknowns. Our baseline security is being upended, and that generates serious apprehensions.

One of the greatest of these is that I have real doubts about my ability to provide for us financially. My current job is barely adequate for meeting our standard of living. What’s more, it is not satisfying to me on so many levels. However, this job provides both health insurance and the assurance that mortgage payments will be met. And also, there is this piece of me that believes I am barely adequate. When I start to look for other work, that piece tells me things like, “So that’s why this particular job landed in your lap. This is the best you can do, which is why you need to stop whining, and make the best of it.”

This part of me believes life is a subsistence, survival-mode kind of thing. It believes that only the strong survive and that only the fittest deserve to be. I believe it developed to cope with some situation in my past. I think it got me through difficult challenges, but it is the part of me that killed my life in my mid-20’s, and it is built out of lies.

I am not the fittest in any kind of way, and were life the Jurassic Park fairytale I imagine, I would not be one of the people who makes it through. I’m the one in the diabetic coma you all are trying to carry while you run. I am the one who gets tragically left behind when hard decisions have to be made. If I am heroic, I take that choice on myself by disappearing into the jungle one night while the rest of you are sleeping so no one has to feel guilty about not staying with me until the end.

And while it is my nature to make light of this, I have spent an awful lot of creative energy trying to be worthy of life: to deserve to be; to have a right to exist; to pay the appropriate dues, and to provide the appropriate amount of work; to add equal value for all the resources I consume. To have a net-zero impact on this world.

Those lessons we learn first, they are so hard to leave behind. Yet, this lesson is one I leave behind and leave behind, and leave behind. It is a life-choking weed of a lesson-a soul-sucking parasite of a lesson. Whatever value it may have added has long since passed away.

Our lives are not won by strength, merit, accomplishment, or valor. They are not competitions, games, tournaments, sports, attainments, or inheritances, and despite every delusional power that tries to tell us otherwise, no single life being lived has earned its place.

Our lives- my life, your life-are inexplicable packages given to us to be opened for our own discovery, delight and pleasure. They are infinitely precious because nothing like them has ever been before and they will never happen again.

It is this lesson I want to lean on, because it is this lesson that led someone to search for a cure for diabetes and gave people like me additional years of life. It is this lesson, searching for the why behind leukemia, that discovered that the difference between life and death is something we carry in our bones. It is this lesson that means I live in a world that learned from Stephen Hawking, and it is this lesson that laughs at survival of the fittest as the best possible outcome for the human condition.

Human beings (and dogs and houseplants) are capable of surviving really tough conditions, horrible situations, and terrible cruelty. Sometimes, life asks us to step up, buckle down, and suck it up. Sometimes, all any of us can do is endure. Yet, human beings (and dogs and houseplants) truly thrive when we expect better than mere survival from ourselves and others: when we create environments of care for those whose health is failing; when we slow down and wait for everyone else to catch up; when we offer a shoulder to the weary, and carry each others’ burdens for a while.

When we–when I–remember the vulnerable, fragile, impossibility that is my life, it gives me courage to simply be. And to know. And in being, in knowing, I find I don’t need some iron-willed discipline to banish worry, fear and dismay. All I need do is breathe and remember. It may be it is the fittest, the worthiest, who survive, but it is us meek ones who truly inherit the earth.

A Confession

The United Methodist Church, which I have considered my church, succumbed to a ruthless and effective political strategy and to the meanness of human imagination. It fell because hearts failed, courage failed, and because too many of us cannot tell the difference between hate and love. It fell because we have relied too much on wealth, power and the prestige of our white American identity to sit at the heart of the church.

Living in faith community is always about living in the problem of hypocrisy and hope.

However, the United Methodist Church told me this week that I am no longer welcome at its tables, in its worship spaces, nor in its puffy cloud heaven. It said this hurtfully, harmfully and with the clear intent to destroy the souls of some within our gathered community.

Churches are very good at singling out people to group into unworthy villains that must be excluded even unto their death. In their history, the Methodists have been no different, as it was a Methodist minister who uttered the phrase “nits make lice” and blotted out the lives of ~148 people.

Since 1972, it has been pulling particular people out of its community and telling them to go stand in the corner. It put a name on a placard and placed that label around each person’s neck. It then started pointing its fingers and calling its names. The UMC aimed its hate, its fear, its aggression, its domination, and its control at those people-creating of them a targeted and vilified people group.

Some of us have held hope that this abuse and shame could be transformed and redressed in our lifetime and maybe even by our own hands. Repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption are all church-y words we like to throw around, and more than that, they are tenets of faith some live by.

An act of repentance from me is to recognize that I never really had claim on that hope, and it takes a certain kind of hubris to believe that it is up to me to set anyone free. I have participated in joy with United Methodist faith communities and been treated as beloved, significant, and worthy. Many people have not. I failed to see them-I have failed to see you. I did not move soon enough, fast enough or with enough conviction into the corner where you have been kept.

I offer this confession into your hands.

If this kind of declaration matters to you: I am not a United Methodist. You don’t have to fear me in that way. I am not always safe, and I often don’t get anything right. But I am committed to an ethic of love, and to an active resistance to evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, including when that form is what has been my church.

Letting Go

I started this post in 2017, and now I don’t remember why, but am come around again to it.

That place where you have finally decided to leave a bad relationship, but it isn’t officially over yet. All the streams and eddies of “I care for you” that you have to let flow past your feet. All the little deaths as you let go of strand after strand within the networks of relationship that you share. It can become hard to believe that what’s on the other side of this is so much better than simply staying in. After all, you’ve developed a mad set of skills for making allowances and compromises, of finding common ground and of tucking yourself away when those parts of who you are rub against the other in some negative way.

For the Dead

We used to
Ring bells
Sing songs together
Walk in a slow parade
Clean & dress & bundle & wrap our arms in loving, losing circles
My mythic ancestors knew how to
Drink and swagger their way past the dead one propped up in a coffin in a corner across the room
I woke this morning
Drunk with anxiety, ready to swagger my way past the dead ones propped up in display cases across my screen
Shut out of the rooms where cleaning & dressing & bundling & wrapping in lost, loving circled arms meet
Feeling it inappropriate
An unworthy desire to mourn
For a moment, I believed any of this has anything to do with me
The sun through maple branches spoke a secret to my soul:
Bells are ringing birds across the sky.
I have a trail to take and if I’m tender,
Can place my feet with somber care
To find a gathering of strangers
Who sing songs together.
Ceremony abounds
Rituals stalk the day
Your dead are in company.
I will join you in your mourning,
If I may.
-Written Sunday, October 28 2018

Boundary Waters Reflections

I am walking out of the Boundary Waters. The day has been windy and the heat level from the sun comes in just under blazing. Surprisingly, the BW Canoe Area  Wilderness is less humid than Iowa, so the heat isn’t too bad, especially as I pass into and out of little pockets of shade on the portage trail.

I am wearing a fancy walking sandal and the springy mud and springy sole of the shoe create a kind of soft carpet walk of the trail. It is very different from the hard clay and granite strewn mountain paths I grew up on. The only real footing decision I have to make is whether or not to plunge through sudden puddles or try to balance my way past on the marginally drier verge. The slow way wins out, and I settle into breathing and noticing.

The Boundary Waters is a good place for noticing. There are berries and flowers everywhere. Loons and tiny woodpeckers quietly slip in and out of sight, flickering past my awareness almost before I have a chance to see them there. A large turtle moseys into the canoe landing, just another rock until you notice that she is moving.

In terms of wilderness areas, this place seems more sympathetic to life than some.  Pillowy moss and gentle pools full of reeds meet tired feet, and most forms of life we encounter aren’t big on the poison, size, or pointy bits scale, mosquitos and biting flies being the exceptions. Even the spiders seem benign, and though I am sure that one encounters fierceness out here, on this occasion, we do a lot of floating, swimming, munching, and snoozing with just enough effort going into foraging wood and water to feel like we are roughing it.

I look down and see a cigarette butt on the ground. I feel a minor twinge of outrage and a deeper sense of sadness. I become guiltily aware of all the wrapped goodies I have packed in and wonder briefly whether any of them have slipped my mind. What will some crow make of the shiny insides of that granola bar wrapper I stuffed in a pocket while out fishing, and which a stray wind may have set loose when I wasn’t paying attention?

The sadness grows and swells: a bit of sorrow at the impact of my clunky feet on this fragile, beautiful place; a sense of loss at how far I live from gratitude and reliance, protected and sheltered as I am with all my electronic devices and the luxury of having packed in too much freeze-dried camp food.

I don’t know what I mean by this, but somewhere on the trail, about a third of the way across, I offer a promise out to the forest, to the ground beneath me, to the mosquitos and bees and wild strawberries: I will find a better balance. I will live into something that requires less resource, and I will ask less of my precious, fragile planet. I will be vigilant in my simplicity that it not become merely another expression of material wealth. I will choose life practices of celebration, reliance and sustenance over convenience and ease of use.

There is something else in my promise that I am not sure I understand. It is something about considering conservation of the wild by staying out of it. It is something about respecting the value of spaces like the Boundary Waters such that I question my right to exercise any kind of personal privilege in even visiting them; a sense of contrition at the burden my human preferences place on the world; the weight of conscience I feel for all the  plastic bags and fancy, lightweight gear that will never decompose that I brought in with me so I could complain about the food and lack of soft places to sleep.

As I am walking, I start to cry because I think of my friend Jeanne Robinson who died of cancer. She never walked here. She will never get to walk here. I am not sure why I am so blessed that I get to walk here, paddle here, contend with the wind, the rain, and the waves. I flashback on my experiment in fly fishing: the spotted sides of a great northern pike flaring up out of the dark water, a violent, vigorous thrash as it taste-tested my fly, only to decide not to commit, a descendent species in a genus that is 43 million years old.

I am stinky, damp, sunburned, and tired. I don’t want to go home.

*Featured Image By R27182818 at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Trust Yourself

In Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach, he writes, ” . . . everyone has an inner teacher whose authority in his or her life far exceeds my own.” (pg. 127)  I read that, and it seemed significant enough that I wrote it out on the whiteboard I have on my refrigerator. When I make toast in the morning, I can look up and see that phrase, along with the words, written in Hangul, which mean I love you.

These two statements act as anchors for me, as so much seems to be cast adrift-from the future of an American democracy, to the future of a United Methodist Church; from my identity as a teacher and musician to my identity as a called and sent christian witness to the world.

The ambiguity of the future is enough to make me wonder sometimes whether I am sane. This ambiguity is actually an uncertainty of the now rather than any real sense about tomorrow. After all, none of us knows what tomorrow brings, not even Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. He prayed for a different outcome than the one he feared was looming on the horizon. He was hopeful, or at least prayerful, that some sort of different ending was possible.

So his distress that night was not really about the uncertainty of tomorrow so much as a kind of deep questioning of himself. Am I on the right path, or did I somehow stray into this place of impending conflict? Could I have spoken up differently or brought my concerns to someone else? Did I try hard enough to convince the leaders of my community that something has to change?

Not actually Jesus’ questions obviously, but my own: Why can’t they see it all as clearly as I do? When did these become our values?  How can I possibly trust everything will be alright when I don’t even know what principles we hold in common anymore?

In an effort to hear a hint of the Still, Small Voice, I keep saying no to opportunities to teach and to lead. I keep saying no to making music or submitting myself to worship in my church. In tuning in to an-other frequency, I criticize leaders in my denomination. I question their motives. I question their sanity. I question their right to lead. By any common interpretation of action, I am defiant and disobedient, disrespectful and dismissive.

The Apostle Paul writes, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8 NIV) Church-y folks like to talk about Jesus’ obedience like it is some sort of obvious virtue formula: Jesus obeys God; we obey Jesus; all is well. Worse, we seem to think our own churches are close enough copies of Jesus, we can simply adjust the formula: Jesus obeys God; the church obeys Jesus; we obey the church; all is well.

Yet, what if this verse from Philippians is not about Jesus’ obedience so much as it is about his faith in himself? Jesus was obedient to his inner teacher, and he trusted that guide so much he didn’t turn aside even when faith in that true self caused him to be assassinated. In that light, Jesus’ whole life appears to be a story about how obedience to  this inner teacher was disobedience to the community and to religious leaders. He was told, straighten up,  get in line, shut up and go home. Stop making trouble for yourself and for your friends. Stop creating so much chaos and division. An obedient person would have stopped, but Jesus didn’t stop.

These days, I wake up and feel the spin of history de-centering me. Political, religious, economic, and existential changes are pulling at every bond and glue that sticks me to the people around me. The assurance I used to have that tomorrow will probably be a lot like today only a little bit better is gone. The urge to fix something is incredible. The desire to solve the fundamental problem can be overwhelming.

So, when I make my toast in the morning and read again these two ingredients for keeping faith, Trust yourself and I Love You, it sometimes feels like betrayal. In social groups that pressure me to either conform or reform, what does it mean for me to look inward for direction? Am I separating myself from relationships to avoid drama, or am I differentiating myself from relationships that have become unhealthy? Is this a faithless abandonment, or is it an audacious new venture I happen to be undertaking alone? What will happen to those people I leave behind?

Yet, deeper inside than my worries, my inner teacher tells me that the war won’t be lost or won by me. My inner teacher tells me the war is itself the losing, and that tomorrow needs people who stayed true in themselves more than it needs another hero. My inner teacher tells me it is OK to let go of what has been, even if that means I fly apart. My inner teacher even tells me it is OK to lose faith in causes and institutions because the true work of GOD is not in fixing or in fighting. The true work of GOD is primarily the work of saying, over and over and over again, “I love you.” I love you. I love you. I love You. I LOVE you; until that liberating someday when “I love you” is not simply something I say, but the somebody I am.




Dust and Ashes

Monday, February 12, 2018

Dear Pneuma,

This has been a season of loss and reconstruction. If ever I believed the delusion that I am solid ground, this last year or two has successfully exposed that as a lie. I suppose the the writing tells us we are dust and ashes, which is to say: flimsy and floaty bits and particles of lives gone by gathered and held together for only a very little while by the animating principle which is the Holy Breath of GOD. So it really should not surprise me to see how easily big things come apart. Big things for me being an ideal of American Democracy, and gender equality, and human rights, and the goodness of the Church.

If I am made of space and dust, am I truly all that disturbed to see that mere dreams like faith and equality can dissolve so completely into mist? Is it actually a surprise that American Democracy is so skewed we actually elected Donald Trump to the Presidency? If it, like me, is a thing made up primarily of emptiness, no wonder it has moved so far from where I thought I left it anchored, or even more likely, that it never really existed at all.

I have actually been shocked to discover that white supremacy (of the neo-nazi, ku kux klan variety) is such an integral part of my community; that it isn’t buried as deep in us as our compassion is. It has been terrible to suddenly see it in family, neighbors and pew friends, such that they have become enemies I can’t bring myself to even recognize anymore. How can you possibly say that? I wonder, and stand silent with my jaw hanging low.

Yet, all these people I love and trust told me it was so: Anna, De’Amon, Alejandro, Sandra, Dan, Jackie, Maziar, Al. I just couldn’t make myself believe them. I held on to some sort of faith in the solidness of the people I saw around me. I didn’t believe the witnesses and so discovered in myself the very same white supremacy I am trying to reject in others. It is a part of me-as close and as supportive as a limb. What kind of amputation must be done and what kinds of pain will I have to endure to heal? I am afraid.

Then I think, What right have I to fear or to even expect healing for myself without attending first to these others whose lives and loves are tortured and held hostage by my race? What of their fears? Do I love them and care for their wounds with the same commitment I make to my own self? Such grand thoughts are easy to write, and such sentiments cost me nothing. The question then becomes How much do I actually value the lives, loves, and bodies of these friends of mine? Am I willing to dissolve and be remade, or do I merely want to wave a hand at repentance and hope for the best?

How much easier the answers to these questions are if I accept how much of me is made of space and time and how little of me is actually meant to be fixed in place and solid all the way through.

It seems there is a part of me that seeks this leaving-ness, this breaking-ness. I enjoy the creativity of redrawing my own lines in the mirror. I love the fire and energy it releases and the life I find looking at the remnants of the life I am leaving behind. What’s more, I am really good at this: redefining self and staking new territory in which to live my own life. Not that it feels good or is easy or anything, but I find in it a real sense of doing something at which I excel.

So, to the real reason I wrote this letter to you. I realized last week that I am going to have to cut off communication with some people I love. I am going to have to let them go for a while. Not forever, I think, but for a season anyway. This seems foolish when everything I read and watch wants me to believe that relationships are the way we save the world. What kind of nonsense am I practicing to let go of a single one? Still, some of those closest to me and some of those institutions and structures I have relied on so heavily are more committed to holding everything together than they are to being Alive. They are more committed to the shape of their dust than they are attentive to the Breath.

So I could really use you right now: your wisdom, your love, your sense of silliness and play. This next step is really going to hurt, and I am worried that I might not be up to it. I am worried I may give up and turn back; back to the relationships and schedules and dreams and ways of believing that held and formed these ashes for a while. I am afraid to let go of myself. I am afraid of the responsibilities and sacrifices a new shape will ask of me. To be honest with myself, I am most afraid that I won’t take any kind of new shape at all.

Love Always.