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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3069673

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.



The Clear, Though Far Off Hymn

The Universe keeps singing to me.

I read my morning news and I listen to NPR and every conversation I have with friends seems to be about the state of the nation: how it is becoming ever more clearly a nation of the State. Women’s bodies and women’s lives are being neatly ranked and positioned by men in suits who probably rarely even share breakfast, much less conversation, with their wives. Large scale construction companies literally hire mercenaries to protect projects which have no comprehensible benefit beyond profit for the bosses, while city and state governments make free to poison their citizens’ water with no discernible consequence. If you are poor, sick, psychologically struggling or in domestic relationships which are not on the approved list, the institutions which govern your life are finally ready to tell you exactly what they think of you-which apparently, is not much. Racism is in such vogue, people are starting to develop their own faddish names for it while slyly suggesting it doesn’t exist.

But then,

I look outside and the sun is glinting off the black fur of our great big bear. It is gleaming in the dappled, camouflage coat of our anxious, eager little cattle dog. They are in such transports of joy watching a squirrel leap back and forth between the trees.

The kite we hung on the bannister is pulling at her bridle as white colts of cirrus frolic across the sky.

Tree buds have opened an unexpected raspberry color, and the contrast between flower and bark is every bit as spectacular as Snow White’s mother could have wished.

Dawn light and Spring birds shimmer against Iowa’s backdrop of Winter grey.

The air smells like dirt. The dogs come in and they smell like newness and rain. Despite all evidence of climate change and impending ecological doom, the Universe is pealing a concinnity of tones themed “Let there be life!”

And then I remember my friend whose cancer killed her right around this time last year. I recall how little there is to make of political drama when you are dying. How little even a parent’s approval can matter when set out against the unrelenting knowledge that for some things, there simply isn’t any cure.

It feels like holy work to pay attention to these sounds. Yet it feels like a sort of betrayal to turn a deaf ear to the human opera playing out around me. I have been guilty before of choosing a doorless tower to defend over the chancy foray into the mud of human relationships. I don’t want to make that same mistake of confusing retreat with victory; of imagining humanness as a war against the very mortal fragility that makes us everything we ever are.

I suppose it is that “either/or” thinking which gets me in trouble in the first place; that way of organizing perceptions that fails to synthesize body and Spirit as soul; that sees change and loss and death as enemies to hate; that imagines integrity as more rigid and unchanging than its ofttimes arbitrary lines in the sand.

Maybe it is that-a framework of choices that can only be “either/or”-that fails to understand what the Universe is offering: not a weapon for a battle to be fought or a warning for a loss to avoid, but a chord to which I can tune, and a motive I can sing. Perhaps that is why Its hymn is buffeting so strongly against my ears. It reminds me that in music dissonance is often necessary to harmony. The opposition of voice against voice is only important because of the way their movement is entwined. There are moments where the silence is louder than the sound.

Maybe, all the Universe wants is for me to resonate its theme, so that, even the midst of so much discordant clashing, the heart can hear the sound God first sang: “Let there be Life!”

Salvaged Worship

A friend of mine keeps a blog called Salvaged Faith.  At the top of the page, there is a definition of the word salvaged which reads: “to save discarded or damaged material for future use.” Are you a salvager? Do you use and reuse items? Have you ever turned broken plates  into a countertop mosaic or do you stockpile twisty ties and rubber bands?  

An issue facing many local churches is an inability to find singers for the choir, an organist for the organ or even a pianist to play hymns. I was recently asked by a church leader what a church can do to fix this problem. Despite the availability of hymns on cd, there is still a serious sense that energy, vitality, life, and worship falter when there are no musicians in the congregation.

Assuming that there are reasons why a congregation cannot simply go out and purchase the services of qualified musicians, (which is an option some churches employ), I suggest using a salvage approach. This is more than a “make-do” approach.  It is more than “waiting for Superman.” What I mean is to actively scavenge for used approaches that can be re-purposed, and to actively rescue discarded practices from the landfill of time.

Organs, pianos, and singers with a degree from Oberlin are not necessary for the people of God to worship God. I think we can get too much into a re-creation mode in worship and not enough into a creation mode in worship. Early American churches completely disdained the use of instruments in worship, relying solely on the singing of the gathered worshipers (congregational singing), and this amongst groups of  people who would not have been able to read words, much less musical notation.

Singing is a native activity. It makes use of bodies, our free gift from God. Just because many of us have forgotten how, almost all human beings are born with an innate sense of pitch and tone. We can learn melodies quite well, and the more we hear and use them, the easier they are. Check out Nadia Bolz-Weber’s article on congregational singing at Patheos.com: People Will Actually Sing If You Let Them 

Practically, I think this means that if you have a church which does not have strong music leadership, it may be time to get back into basic singing-focusing the entire community on learning 4 or 5 tunes really well and adapting lyrics to those tunes, rather than trying to cover 60% of the hymnal in a year.

And singing is not the only way people can make music to God. Poetry, sacred movement, tambourines and feet can all express music. This means truly reinventing worship to be a creative expression of praise to the Creator. If that involves a percussion ensemble improvising on home-made drums, walk away from a church organ. You can refurbish, redistribute, or relocate it to the Glory of God. I recently heard that someone was able to “part out” an old piano and made more money than they could have received by selling it outright.

How do people in the mountains of Guatemala worship?  How do people worship in churches without pews, walls, pulpits, and lecterns?  Because people do worship in  a number of ways.  They do worship on landfills, in open fields, at parishioners’ homes and through the grates between prison cells.  When resources are lacking, people come up with creative, innovative and startling solutions.

My advice, if your church is facing a lack of music leadership, is not to seek a pastor who can sing, or even necessarily to invite an organist from another town to pre-record hymns on your church organ.  Instead, reclaim the talents and skills of your own community to make something new out of the materials at hand.