The Spirit Who Weaves Our Lives Together

interconnectedness 3

As it ties in with my earlier devotional post about the Lord’s Prayer and our interconnectedness, I wanted to share some notes I used for a recent Bible study I led at the church I attend, the United Church of Chapel Hill.   We are having a late spring series which my friend Rev. Suzanne Lamport and I are co-leading on the Holy Spirit.   In the Bible study we discussed alot about how the Holy Spirit is experienced as the presence of God in which all of life and all creation discover their interconnection.

Unlike much of what I share, this is pretty rough and disorganized — very much notes!  But I hope some of the thoughts included help you discover your own connection to the Spirit and your own sense of connectedness with others & all of of life.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

micah as clergy robe

Psalm 104

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your  chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your  chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

14 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
15  and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.
16 The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
17 In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.
19 You have made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the animals of the forest come creeping out.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
and lie down in their dens.
23 People go out to their work
and to their labor until the evening.

24 O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

27 These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
28 when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
29 When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
30 When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
32 who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
35 Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

 

 

 

Introduction

holy spirit 1I want to welcome everybody here this week, as we continue our late spring Wednesday night series on getting to know the Holy Spirit, who often is the Person of the Trinity about whom we know least.  Each week leading into Pentecost, the Sunday the church celebrates the gift of the Spirit to the church, we will look at a different Scripture that looks a little bit both at who the Spirit is and how we experience the Spirit in our lives.

 

Before we look into tonight’s Scripture does anyone remember anything that stands out about what we learned about the Holy Spirit last week?   We also discussed some practices we can engage in to get to know this aspect of the Holy Spirit last week.   Was anyone able to try one this week?  How did it go?

 

We’ve got a pretty lengthy section of Scripture we are going to look at tonight – Psalm 104.   I was wondering if we could each take turns reading a few verses at a time.  As we do, let’s pay attention to where the Holy Spirit or God’s Spirit is described at work.

 

What stands out to you about this Psalm?

 

Where do we see the Holy Spirit at work?  What is the Spirit doing?

Here we are told of the Spirit that God sends forth God’s Spirit and the earth and life on it is created.  This psalm provides gives a rich beautiful description of the places and ways the Holy Spirit is at work in every living thing, giving it life.   The Nicene Creed, an ancient Christian declaration of faith, describes the Holy Spirit as “the Lord and Giver of Life”, because of many texts like this one that connect the Spirit’s presence with God as God is present in all of nature, giving life to each creature.

God mother henThe word we translate Spirit here, ruach in the Hebrew, is related to the words wind and breath.  This connects this text with Genesis 1 where the Spirit is described in some translations alternately as like a wind blowing on the chaotic waters from which life is born in the beginning and as brooding over the lifeless earth in the beginning like a mother bird resting on her eggs, waiting them to hatch.  Likewise Psalm 104 shows us when the Spirit blows over nature like wind or breath, nature comes to life, all its creatures fully flourishing.   That connection is also important because ruach, the name for Spirit is feminine in Hebrew, just like the image of the Spirit as like a mother bird.  This imagery of the Spirit as mother of living things is something that occurs again and again – with the Psalms talking about believers being placed under the wings of God like baby birds under their mother’s wings, the prophets likening God to a mother, and even in the New Testament when the Spirit appears over Jesus at his baptism like a mother dove brooding over a newly hatched chick.   Jesus even draws on motherly image for the Spirit when he says “you must be born again” because he talks about being born of the Spirit, not just our earthly mothers.   Wherever life is renewed the Spirit is present in a motherly way.

What are ways in which you have encountered God the Spirit as life-giver like the Psalm describes?  How about renewing life when it seemed to be missing?

How does seeing God the Spirit as feminine or mothering relate to your own experience of God?

The heart of what the Spirit is pictured as doing is being life-giver.  But this is more than just making creatures physically alive. It is also helping everything become full flourishing.  What are ways the Spirit makes creatures full flourishing?

Notice the things the Spirit brings into the lives of Her creatures to help them flourish:

The Spirit gives all creatures space to stretch, grow, live, and move.   This is beautifully pictured by God stretching out the sky like a tent, the earth like a foundation, and placing the elements and sky like pillars.   The air, the land, the water, even the trees all end up becoming elsewhere in the Psalm the space for living creatures to flourish and grow.

mother and foetusSome theologians consider this making room the key way in which God makes live happen.  Instead of thinking of God up there, high above us, somewhere in the sky, creating everything out of nothing rather like this Psalm these theologians describe God as present with, in, and under everything, so God is all about us and within us.  They picture God’s creating as God making room in God’s self – like a mother making room in her body for their child to conceive, grow, be born.  And so it is in God we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17) and there is never a place in which God is not (Psalm 139).  It is also why experiencing God’s presence is described in the Psalms as finding a broad place in which there is no cramping (Ps. 18:19).

What does it mean in our lives that the Spirit is God as God gives us space to stretch, grow, live, and move?  What might it mean to our relationships to others and even other creatures that the Spirit does this?  How can we participate with the Spirit in the work of making room for other people and other creatures to stretch, grow, live, and move?

The Spirit gives all creatures sustenance, enough food and water from God’s hand to thrive.   What might it mean that the Spirit does this for us personally?  What might it mean that the Spirit can be found in this being provided for other people?  For other living things?

An article in Huffington Post makes an important point: “Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day — most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land — can’t afford to buy this food.

“In reality, the bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.”

So if the Holy Spirit produces enough sustenance to provide for all who live, but some die in poverty famished, another way we see the Spirit is we see the Spirit as present in people and communities as they address the inequities in society that keep some going without what they need while others grow unhealthy from over-abundance.

What does it mean to you that the Spirit is God as we encounter God giving us sustenance, nourishment for our lives and for the lives of other living things?  Are there people or situations where you’ve seen the Spirit do this?  How can we participate with the Spirit in this work of giving sustenance?

 

The Spirit draws us into a deeper sense of our interconnectedness

One of the key themes of the Psalm here is how all the parts of nature God births into the world through the Spirit are interconnected.  The space of sky, earth, the waters, become the places in which life thrives.  The plants so poetically described as growing are aided in growing by the wind, earth, heat and light from fire and sun.  Those plants and the waters nourish animals, which also sometimes find sustenance in each other.

Jesus Redeemer of All CreationUnlike Genesis  2, which  puts human beings as the center of this web of life, here God as God plays with Leviathan is the center-piece of nature.  We are placed firmly within nature, as but one part of a great web of life.  The Spirit is like the thread that connects all creatures including rocks, plants, animals, and even people.

This interconnectedness of life is beautifully pictured by Sufi poet Rumi when he writes:
“I spent millons of years in the world
of inorganic things
as a star, as a rock…
Then I died and became a plant–
Forgetting my former existence
because of its otherness
Then I died and became an animal–
Forgetting my life as a plant
except for inclinations in the season
of spring and sweet herbs–
like the inclination of babes
toward their mother’s breast
Then I died and became a human
My intelligence ripened, awakening
from greed and self-seeking
to become wise and knowing
I behold a hundred thousand
intelligences most marvelous
and remember my former states
and inclinations
And when I die again
I will soar past the angels
to places I cannot imagine…”

Ultimately Psalm 104 joins Rumi in reminding us that all of life is of a piece.

In our society, often we are very atomistic, imagining ourselves as able to live most by being autonomous, pulling ourselves up by our boot-straps.  But Psalm 104 paints a different picture.  We find true life as we are able to find ourselves as connected in a web of community – whether the community of nature or family, society, church.  Ultimately without our relationships with the earth, with other animals, with plants, with nature, we would not be able to stay alive let alone thrive.

desmond-tutuIts message mirrors that of Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King:

“A person is a person through other persons.  None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are. A person is entitled to a stable community life, and the first of these communities is the family.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

 

Not recognizing our interconnectedness is a part of where we get our environmental problems & our social ills.

What ways have you experienced the Spirit helping people discover their interconnectedness with each other or with nature?   What are ways you have or can participate in this work of the Spirit?

 

A final part I see is:

The Holy Spirit ushers in full life by inviting creatures to play, joy, and pleasure

Psalm 104 depicts this by imagining God as present in the Spirit frolicking together with the Leviathan.  The Leviathan is some kind of sea monster – we aren’t sure if it is viewed sea monsteras some kind of dragon, a giant kraken, a giant crocodile or alligator.  It was sort of like the first Godzilla.  In the ancient world, including some other texts of Scripture, it was pictured as a symbol of all the forces working to drag the world back into chaos, death, and destruction with which the gods had to battle.

Instead of being a symbol of death and evil it is pictured as the largest and most powerful animal.  In Hebrew this reads like God and the Leviathan have the relationship between pet owner and pet.  The Leviathan was made for the purpose of God playing with this Leviathan.  Joy, play, and wonder are the signs of being fully alive.

There is a sense of that joy, play, and wonder that a full life gives.

This is a big counter to the common picture of the Protestant work ethic, but is at the heart of the image of life the Bible depicts.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, even God stops work one day out of 7 to enjoy what has been made and challenges Israel to regularly let the land rest while also not requiring people to work non-stop as slaves but have rest to enjoy life as well.  Jesus models this by going alone to solitary places away from work and also through celebrating through parties in the community.  Without embracing joy, play, pleasure, and wonder, we fail to fully experience life.

 

Where do you find these things?  How have you experienced the Spirit helping you and others embrace joy, wonder, and play?   How can you participate with the Spirit in helping others experience the Spirit’s gift of play, joy, and wonder?

 

Do you see any other things the Spirit brings that bring life here?

 

To conclude I invite you to share a way you have come to know the Spirit more clearly tonight, and then join me in praying together this prayer of St. Hildegard of Bingen to the Holy Spirit:

Prayer to the Holy Spirit (Hildegard of Bingen)

Holy Spirit , you animate all, move all, root all, forgive all, cleanse all,

 

erase all our past mistakes, and then put medicine on our wounds.

 

We praise you Spirit of incandescence for awakening and reawakening all creation.

 

Oh Spirit of fire, Paraclete, our Comforter,

 

You’re the Live in alive, the Be in every creature’s being,

 

the Breathe in every breath on earth.

 

Holy Life-Giver, Doctor of the desperate,

 

Healer of everyone broken past hope,

 

Medicine for all wounds,

 

Fire of love, Joy of hearts,

 

fragrant Strength, Sparkling Fountain,

 

Protector, Penetrator,

 

in You we contemplate

 

how God goes looking for those who are lost

 

and reconciles those who are at odds with God

 

break our chains!

 

You bring people together.

 

You curl clouds, whirl winds,

 

send rain on rocks, sing in creeks,

 

and turn the lush earth green.

 

You teach those who listen,

 

breathing joy and wisdom into them.

 

We praise You for these gifts, Light-giver,

 

Sound of joy,

 

Wonder of being alive,

 

Hope of every person,

 

and our strongest Good.  Amen.

 

Daily Devotional: Called Out of Isolation into Deep Connection

all saints 2I continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles.   In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

interconnectedness 3

In my last note I posted on how “Give us this day our daily bread” invites us to recognize as we pray those words how deeply interconnected we are.  How our lives and the lives of others around us are intertwined.  We are intertwined not just with those like us, in our situation in life. But this intertwining includes even our lives being intertwined with those struggling under oppression, illness, ostracism, or other crushing situations who are hanging on through a fragile thread.  Most surprising is that this “us” includes those very different from us perhaps in ways we find challenging, even those who feel to us like enemies threatening our very selves.  Our lives all hang in the balance, our futures are all interconnected.

This prayer invites us into living as ones mindful of our deep interconnectedness with each other and all that live in this fragile, beautiful, yet resilient web of life that embraces not just those like us but people very unlike us and even, as Psalm 104 suggests in painting a picture of God providing  for the life of all creatures in nature, including every living thing.

This is so different than the dominant message of our culture, which teaches us to be self-made men and self-made women.  In her stunning book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, scholar and activist bell hooks explores the ways in which our culture’s messaging about what a full life looks like deeply damage individuals, particularly men, by teaching us that strength is found in radical independence, in a pull-yourself-up by the boot straps mentality in which you are taught not to need others, not to need to delve to the depths of your feelings where true human connection happens, and to look at life as a series of conquests.  She masterfully presents the process in which young boys are taught to shut down their emotions, to not let people into their inner world, and only allow themselves to express anger, frustration, and control.  This is a recipe for

isolation.  And,  though her work in The Will to Change focuses on men, this message that the full life is one of deep independence, where you say you don’t have need for connection but can blaze on through life without others, I think is also communicated by our culture to people regardless of gender.  We get this message that to be strong is to be aloof, to be in control, to be unemotional or, if we have emotion, to be those emotions society views as positive such as pride, happiness.   We are taught to shut down or hide those sides of ourselves viewed as unpalatable.  Yet to fully connect we have to be able to fully experience the depths of all of who we are and be able to be truly open, truly connected with others.

This tendency to view life’s goal as to be alone, some Thoreau in a Walden in the woods who is untouched by other’s views, blazing ahead in our own pursuits, also takes shape in popular American spirituality.  Growing up in an evangelical Christian home and attending an evangelical Christian college, a phrase that I came to know intimately was “a personal relationship with Jesus”.   This I was told was the central point of Christianity.  This “personal relationship with Jesus” is beautifully pictured by this old Gospel song:

“Well, me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

 

“Well, I know a man that once was a sinner

I know a man that once was a drunk

I know a man that once was a loser

He went out one day and made an altar right out of a stump

 

“Me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

 

“Jesus brought me through all of my troubles

Jesus brought me through all of my trials

Yes, Jesus brought me through all of my heartaches

And I know why my Jesus is gonna forsake me now

 

“’Cause me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

 

“We can’t afford any fancy preaching

We can’t afford any fancy church

We can’t afford any fancy singing

But you know Jesus got a lotta poor people out doing his work

 

“Me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about

 

“Me and Jesus we got our own things going

Me and Jesus, we got it all worked out

Me and Jesus, we got our own things going

We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about”

 

Lest we pick on evangelical Christianity alone, this individualistic approach to spirituality, which says it is just about me: my beliefs, my needs, my sense of connection to what I consider Sacred, is dominant across the religious scene.  There are many liberal interconnectedness 2Protestants for whom their rejection of evangelicalism and embrace of the sort of liberal views I share with them is not about embracing a deeper connection with others and all of life but instead about pulling away from a sense of tradition, finding a way to say they have no need of anyone to dictate what their lives are like.   Outside of Christianity, we see it too.   How many people raised in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim homes are flocking to the beautiful, vibrant, and life-giving faith of Buddhism out of appreciation for the inner healing, peace, and serenity its meditation practices and rich philosophy can create while also using that very individual practice as an excuse not to connect with rich community, intentional relationships with challenging people, which is as much a part of whole-hearted Buddhist practice as it is the faiths they are leaving behind?  I am not a huge critique of the spiritual-but-not-religious movement emerging in our culture, as some are.  There are many who can find a deep spirituality better outside of organized religion , some for whom this at this moment may be their only option due to the trauma sadly the faiths of their childhoods put them through and, if it works for them, who am I to tear it down?  But here, too, there is a tendency to embrace this atomistic approach to life which was so central to the evangelicalism of my old life.  It can be a way of avoiding true connection with others in the intentional way in which religion of all stripes always calls us into when, to be truly life giving, any spiritual path even outside of organized religion requires commitment to values and ideals that are difficult to interconnectedness 4engage, as well as to intentional relationships in a circle of connection which can be challenging.  For intentional connections with others whether in churches, synagogues, and mosques or Buddhist meditation groups and ongoing non-religious spirituality circles forces you to relate to others whose views, personalities, and ways of relating are very different than your own.  Such people challenge you to truly examine how real your Christian love, obedience to torah, submission to Allah, compassion borne of enlightenment, or belief in the interconnectedness of all things (or whatever other spiritual value you believe your path opens you to) are.  It is only in the context of navigating relating genuinely to others very different from ourselves that the true work of spiritual growth can take off, for compassion is only really compassion when exercise to real people and real living things.

What does this have to do with our experience of grief, trauma, and pain?

For me at least learning the lesson that it is not just me & Jesus who can have our own thing going, for there is not personal relationship to be had with God which could be real without drawing me into a web of messy relationships with other people and other living things, though at first troubling, truly became a source of life for me.

interconnectedness 5When I lost recently my late wife Katharine, the love of my life for over a dozen years, I found in the trauma, the pain, and grief, I could not sustain a personal relationship with God or a meaningful spiritual practice.

Writing about this experience for a meditation for Lent at the church I attend, the United Church of Chapel Hill, I say:

“One of the hardest times until recently for me was when I left the evangelical denomination I was ordained by early in my career over ways I was being asked to mistreat queer people. I couldn’t do that, couldn’t believe God was a God of rejection, so I left that community at great cost. When I did, oh so many people who had promised to always stand by me, dropped out of my life – some quietly like leaves in the autumn, others with thunderous condemnations. I’ve only recently realized how for years this left me deeply wounded, struggling to trust when others say they will be there for me or accept me for who I am they would.

 

“What a surprise it was to me this October on what is now the darkest day of my life to find that, almost immediately upon walking in to find the one woman most precious to me in all the world lying dead, I was not abandoned, nor alone. In minutes, my little apartment was packed, mainly with people from this church. You folks just would not leave me alone. And thank God for that. I fully expected to fall through the cracks Kat’s passing left in my life, forgotten.

 

“I remember one day when two dear friends at this church took me into their home so I didn’t have to face this pain alone, I turned to them and said “I look and I cannot see God griefright now. I try to pray and words won’t come. But I look up and there you are. Your hands holding me up. Your voices telling me I can get through this. And that is enough. Enough of God for right now”.   I could have pointed to many others of you here and said the same. It was your friendship, your support, your compassion that were God, peace, and prayer for me when I could not find those on my own.

 

“This — God as known in community—is what I have found anew here at United Church, not just after my late wife died but even before, starting that first Sunday right after Kat began to speak clearly again after her first big stroke, when we strolled into this church and were so warmly welcomed that I remember Kat saying on the ride home to me, “We’ve found a home here”. You all were truly a home to her those last years of her life, when she was wracked in so much pain every day. You remained such a home to me after her passing.

 

“A home where I could learn to trust again that if I reach out for help, I will find it.   That Jesus’ promise God will never leave me nor forsake me is true for me in and through dear people like each of you who are God’s hands, feet, voices. For this I thank God and I thank each of you. Amen.”

 

Ultimately this is not an either/equation.  We do need a personal journey, a spiritual pilgrimage we take part in.  We do need personal spiritual practice. But when the rubber hits the road, we need others who are the “we” of this prayer.  We need the connection.

We face times in which the darkness is too great.  We face moments when the weight of the world and our lives are so heavy we can barely stand.   We need in those moments arms to hold us up, voices to remind us we can get through.   These will come if we embrace community as a way to move forward.  These will come at times through very unlikely people.  But those deep connections are where life can be borne in the midst of death, joy found in the midst of sorrow, hope found in the moments of despair.

The reality of the spirituality borne of such openness to me better reflects not “Me and Jesus, We Have Our Own Thing Going”, but rather the moving Gospel Song “I Need You To Survive”

“[Chorus: x2]

I need you

You need me

We’re all a part of God’s body

Stand with me

Agree with me

We’re all a part of God’s body

It is his will that every need be supplied

You are important to me

I need you to survive [x2]

 

“I pray for you

You pray for me

I love you

I need you to survive

I won’t harm you

With words from my mouth

I love you

I need you to survive

[Repeat]

 

“It is his will that every need be supplied

You are important to me

[All:]

I need you to survive”

Realizing this calls me to put aside the defense that years of experience, cultural messaging, and my traumas & heartaches teach me to have up.  They call me to let the pain I face not just break my heart, but break it open to others.  They invite me to reach out in my pain, expecting that as in Hogwarts, help will come for those who ask.

It also calls me when I pass through to the other side of my heartache, of my deep pains, to truly remember I remain interconnected in this web of life.   To look for where other hurting, struggling, people are.  To be the one willing to say “I see you.  I am here for you.  You do not have to journey alone”.

If you have been through the dark valley as I have, whatever shape that darkness and that valley took, you know the difference those who walked with you were.  Let us choose to embrace them when they come and to be them for others.  In doing so we not only pray but answer these words of Christ.

Let it be so this day.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Songs of the South: Psalms from the Psych Floor

As I reflect on the cost of the breakdown of our sense of interconnection with others and with the earth, I can’t but help remember my time of chaplain training, first at WakeMed and then UNC hospitals.  While at both I was brought face to face with the gripping poverty our economic system and very broken mental health system produces here in the south-land.

At WakeMed I was able to serve as an urban ministries chaplain for my clinical unit, serving at Interact domestic violence shelter and the Wake Urban Ministries Men’s Shelter.  At UNC, among other areas, I focused on the psychiatric floors often working with people dealing with addiction issues or mental health concerns to whom our very fractured system was a failure.

I think I need to find a better title for it, but the following poem I wrote is an expression of the heartache I saw on witnessing the ways in which our failures to live as if we are interconnected with each other in our society cause pain.

It is not my strongest poem for sure, but I hope it opens up insight.  And, please, if you have a good name suggestion, let me know.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

Psalms from the Psych Floor

Moses-parting-red-sea

“O come, o come, deliver me,”

cried those under Pharoah’s lash.

Their hearts longed to soar free

with eagle-feathers bright and brash.

Staff raised high, Israel did see,

with mighty ocean crash

the flaming light of liberty

their backs freed from burning lash.

 

Like waves I hear this cry still roar

echoing in many deserted hall

lined with cots for the homeless poor

abandoned by those called great and tall

whose money moved to distant shores

when profits  began to fall.

homeless in jesus arms

 

“Deliver” echoes still in whispering call

where others lie, victims of a hidden war.

Their broken bodies writhe in withdrawal

from poisons that trap them like iron doors

and wrap their minds in darkling pall.

 

“Deliver” cries children from other homes

whose minds and bodies lie broken by neglect.

Their hearts bear wounds and scars like broken bones

that will not set but must lay wrecked

uncertain for minds what healing comes.

 

Child Abuse Statistics

Oh God, who set old Israel free and yet brightens our sky

what light in such shadows can you bring

what freedom shine in their eyes.

“Deliver, Oh deliver,” their stories sing,

and I cannot help but question why

and what shape will we see rise on morning’s wings

in answer to their ceaseless cry.

 

 

 

 

Daily Devotional: Embracing Our Interconnectedness

gethsemane prayerI continue to look to expand on my reflecting on prayers that have pulled me and others through exploring the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord’s Prayer.   The version of this prayer in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship follows:

“ “Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”

 

One of the things that is striking to me about this prayer today is that it says not “give me this day my daily bread” but instead “give us this day our daily bread”. This is a point I honestly often overlook.   But in reality it is key to understanding this prayer.

hamster-wheel-raceOften in the hum-drum of daily existence we get very focused on our lives. We can be like hamsters on treadmills in constant motion. Get up. Go to gym. Get shower. Go to work. Go home. Watch Netflix. Rinse, dry, repeat.   We move through life in our little lanes not noticing others and what is happening around us. Not recognizing how interconnected we all are.

As I right I spent a wonderful morning at a conference on confronting systemic racism led by Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, president of the United Church of Christ.   He talked to a mix of preachers, social justice advocates, and run of the mill lay people about the problem of racism in the modern world.   In his first talk on confronting white privilege he unpacked the ways in which the racism that creeps into every level of our society becomes insidious, black history colllageinvisible to so many people, particularly white straight men like myself. They cannot see the ways in which society is stacked in their favor and against people of color, women, queer people.   Because of this they are shocked to hear stories of people being racially profiled in ways that leads them to be mistreated by police. They have trouble believing the vast inequalities in education, healthcare, and pay rates across racial lines or the stunningly high disparity in homelessness and suicide rates between straight and queer youth.   When the statistics are listed their jaws drop.

And very few focus on confronting it, because in truth the way this kind of racism works is beneficial. To borrow a phrase from the Hunger Games, the odds are stacked in their favor.

I remember first really confronting my blindness to racial issues when I was with my good friend Terrence near the college I attended. Terrence is a great guy, a good friend, and someone anyone could trust with their life. He is also well over six feet tall, with long locks like Bob Marley has, and a truly intimidating frame.   I never notice this because he is a loveable goof ball to all his friends. That is until we went to grab lunch one day he was visiting me near my college and tried to go into the fish restaurant nearby.

black sacred heart of jesusI still don’t know what he saw.   But when he looked through the glass door inside his whole body stiffened. He looked like someone walked over his grave or he saw a poltergeist through his door. “We can’t walk in there,” he said. “Someone like me would get hurt there”.

He then unpacked his experiences growing up in a small town in the south as a child growing into a black man, having to learn some white people would respond to him in fear to a black man of his frame. And how such fear could lead such otherwise seemingly good fathers, brothers, and neighbors who happen to be white to lash out and kill him. His words ended up prophetic, not of him but of both a close relative of his shot, and of so many black boys and men these past few years.

Later on, while working as a pastor in a multi-racial, multi-cultural church in a southern military town I was invited by a strong, outspoken civil rights activist who attended our church to go with her, who also was a black woman who was the mother of a black man, to join in an event in which mothers of various races were talking with each other. I heard there countless stories of upstanding, law abiding young men harassed, attacked, forced to live with fear and wariness I could not imagine simply because of the biased fear and judgment their white neighbors had for them out of a social conditioning to fear and reject black people.

The racialized system in our society in America, in which the wealth and advancement of some comes at the oppressing of others whether due to race, gender, sexuality, or legal status – all of which happen regularly – is an example of forgetting that we are called not to pray “give me” or my special group “my daily bread”. No, we are called to pray “give us this day our daily bread”.

This is a call to recognize our interdependence, our connection, with all people.

desmond-tutuAnswering this prayer means recognizing the reality which Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King gave us when they said:

“A person is a person through other persons. None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are. A person is entitled to a stable community life, and the first of these communities is the family.”

and

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

One amazing example of where this failure to recognize our interconnectedness fails us is in the issue of hunger.

A few years ago the Huffington Post ran an article on hunger. It made some stunning points: “Hunger is caused by poverty and inequality, not scarcity. For the past two decades, the rate of global food production has increased faster than the rate of global population growth. The world already produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet. That’s enough to feed 10 billion people, the population peak we expect by 2050. But the people making less than $2 a day — most of whom are resource-poor farmers cultivating unviably small plots of land — can’t afford to buy this food.

“In reality, the bulk of industrially-produced grain crops goes to biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry. The call to double food production by 2050 only applies if we continue to prioritize the growing population of livestock and automobiles over hungry people.”

What an amazing set of facts! We grow enough agriculture to feed all the world’s population, but fail to do so, because we fail to structure it in ways that acknowledge our interdependence.

I’ll share some thoughts next time about how this interdependence, when recognized, can help us in our times of trial and transition. In the meantime, I challenge you to join me in leaning into the discomfort this prayer invites us to face: the discomfort of facing whatever types of privilege you have, whatever ways they blind you to other’s struggles, and the discomfort of beginning steps to see in what ways you can begin to better reorganize your life, work to reorganize our communities & world.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Song of the South: Rebel Cry

Thinking about yesterday’s reflection on the ways as a society we fail to live out the Lord’s Prayers invitation to recognize our interconnectedness when we prayer “give us this day our daily bread” made me think of a poem I wrote some years ago on how this dynamic has played out here in the south, called “Rebel Cry”.

I hope it helps you envision communities more open to recognizing the many ways we all are connected.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Rebel Cry

barns Honeysuckle_2

“The south will rise again”

whispered in winds thick with smells

of honey suckle and jasmine

joining barns, creeks, church bells,

and watermelons

casting a kind of spell

shaping the landscape in

my childhood mind when hells

like slavery, Jim Crow,

and poverty weren’t known.

dinner-table-lwatermelon

I heard “the south will rise”

as a promise of grits,

cornbread, tea, pecan pies,

at tables all can sit

affirming our shared ties,

a re-union as fit

as a sight for sore eyes.

Then, at twelve, I was hit

by news of a black man shot

in the name of the rising south.

hate crime Trayvon Martin

That south which filled my sights

was falling, not rising, then:

falling into hate and fright

based on folk’s shade of skin,

if who they love was deemed “right”,

forgetting that the true sin

is not those whom we fight

but in not letting them in.

With waving flags, guns ablaze,

we plunged b’neath where we can raise.

martin luther kingsit-in-greensboro-record

My heart sank til I heard

a Georgia preacher’s dream:

children unencumbered

by hate of color or creed,

from whom a new south is born.

Now I know that south’s rising,

rising beyond fear and scorn

of those different, with wings

of a new morning for all

without more dividing walls.

Yes, the south will rise,

will rise again

rise with justice

rise with equality

rise with shadows of hate forgotten.

carolina sunrise

 

Song of the South: A Cemetary For Two Civilizations

lumbee pow wow 1Thinking of yesterday’s reflection on “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” as an invitation for us to think about the costs of our own consumption and our need to weigh what we really want, what truly is life-giving not just for us but for all, in the balance of our life choices, I remembered an experience when I was pastoring in Robeson County and was blessed to visit a Lumbee Pow-Wow out toward Maxton I believe.   Meeting and hearing the stories of those gathered, including the rich history of the people of the First Nations in Robeson County, NC, my heart was deeply moved.  I thought of all the beauty and wisdom still present in those cultures and how much poorer our world is that my ancestors took from this earth, from their ancestors and others, and really from lumbee pow wow 2me as well so much heartlessly without learning to make room for the lessons those cultures taught and for the richness of nature they encountered to remain for future generations.  They mixed up want and need at great cost.  I wrote the following poem while reflecting on that lesson.  I hope it opens you up more fully to the difficult questions of how we can resist the temptations they feel into and more fully choose what brings wholeness to all people and all creation.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

A Cemetary for Two Civilizations

 

All around me lies an asphalt tombstone etched by native tears

where once green and lush lay an earthen womb

surrounded now with no somber silence to mark the passing years

echoing instead with acoustic assaults which resound from our technologic tomb,

tribal chants transformed into honk of horns and  screech of tires.

No aromatic potpourri adorns its cracked and aging shape

but smog rising in place of the sage smoke of ancestral fires

while acid rain showers down in rivers that will not drown that scene of cosmic rape

where mingled as one the voices of our ancients and theirs with the Great Spirit weep.

sage smoke

 

Daily Devotional: No Magic Genie Wishing Wells Here

A-Prayer-For-YouI continue looking at prayers that have both pulled me and others through personal trials and struggles.   In the last several posts I have looked at the Lord’s Prayer itself.

Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:

“Our Father,

Who art in heaven,

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come.

Thy will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

As we forgive those who sin against us.

And lead us not into temptation,

But deliver us from evil.

For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.”

 

breakbread“Give us this day our daily bread” takes some significance to me as I reflect on journeying through life transitions, not just the losses I have gone through this past year and which I help others go through in my work as a chaplain, but as happy transitions in which people find life again.   It is important to me to note that what we ask for in this prayer is the bare essential of what we need.  It is not “give us a four-course meal with the best wine and rich desserts”.  It is not “give us a steak, hot from the grill”.   It is not even “give us a week’s supplies of food”.  It is “give us this day our daily bread”.

I know for me often times I want to dictate what happens.   I want a kind of certainty about what will follow tomorrow or the next day, especially when I face overwhelming uncertainty as one does when you face into unexpected illness in yourself or a loved one or, in a more happy, as one does when one enters a new job or a new relationship.

wishing wellAnd so we can find ourselves using prayer like some sort of magic wishing well, trumpeting to God that we want this particular job, this particular relationship, this particular house, as if we can see fully what is best for us long term.   I am beginning to realize in my life that it is hard to determine in this moment what is best in the long-term for me or anyone else.

Instead of turning prayer into a magic wishing well in which we treat God like some magic genie, we are invited in this prayer to ask “what do I really need?  What is a full life like for me?”   When we confront this question in our prayer, meditation, moments of mindful awakening, our life begins to look different.

It may be that in the long view of the cosmos and your life that the job that you think you have to have may not be what you need.  It could be that given another opportunity you will learn new strengths and skills which open you up to work, relationships, and opportunities that you cannot begin to dream of in this moment.  It could be that what you think you really want is only so dear to your heart because your ability to dream has not grown yet.  We can dream too small.

genie 2Similarly we can be so quick to find “the one” in our dating lives that we  forget that taking our time to really get to know another person is not a waste if we do not spend every day together the rest of our lives.   Even in relationships that do not become life-long loves there is so much beauty in each person we meet, in the experiences they can share with us, their life lessons, their passions, which if we are open to them can make our lives richer.   And, as one having recently lost a partner to illness and death, I can say I am painfully aware that finding a match in one’s life does not mean necessarily a life-long love even if both intend it.   I would not trade a moment we had together those dozen plus years, nor ever view that relationship as a waste even though in ended tragically one fateful autumn day.   Realizing this paints for me a different image of the possibilities of relationship.  If had not been death that took her but divorce, would the relationship have been a loss?  No.  For both of our lives were richened, deepened, and made more whole.  I have this belief that every person we encounter whether as strangers, new friends, seeming adversaries, or even potential lovers, all have that capacity to enrich our lives and be enriched by us if we approach them with the openness to life not as we think it must be but as it is.

genieThis call to be open not just to what we want or think we must have but to what we truly need is so important not just for our emotional peace and our embracing life in all its complexity, messiness, and beauty.  It is also a part of being people who live justly and with mercy.   For if we look at our world, one thing is certain: Far too few have far too much while far too many struggle and eke to get by.   And what those far too few have comes at the cost not just of the lives of the many struggling but of nature itself, for our desire to get what we want, when we want, leads us to waste this planet, the only home as yet given to us in which to live.

Learning to embrace a more simple existence and choosing to eat the bread given for this day with gratitude rather than seeking more wine, wealth, riches, and banquets is so important.  Ultimately we are called to consider how we might re-order our own lives.  What choices can we make to live more simply and justly?

People take different approaches.  A good friend of mine from seminary, David, has chosen to choose a path of simplicity of possessions.  His family has one car, lives in a very simple neighborhood.  He bikes most places.  He chooses not to have a lot of technology, and to not have tons of shoes and outfits.   He does so in order to have more time with his family rather than chasing the next dollar, more time for his community, and more resources put to making this world more whole.   I do not know if he does these things for this reason, but it ends up making a smaller global footprint.

I have many friends who choose to forego food or drink that comes at a cost of justice – preferring to buy fair trade food, or to forego meat which is raised at great cost, its consumption on the scale we consume it in the Western world having great ecological benefits.

I know of others who intentionally as they plan their lunches or their week’s meals put together packages of food and toiletry items to give out to people they encounter hungry, struggling, and in need.

I could go on, beyond eating itself.  But embracing our life choices as not just being about us and what we want but also what make us whole and make other’s whole is key.

I want to close with a country song that to me reflects the heart of what this prayer speaks to me:

 

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah