Song of the South: (repost) Life Angel

I wrote in my devotional on Psalm 103 about my work as a chaplain and how it informs my understanding of how God’s presence helps people rediscover life as a phoenix rising from the ashes.  I thought it would be appropriate to share a poem I wrote early into my career as a chaplain which reflects some of this experience.

Many blessings!

Micah

Life Angel

Angel

At night I hear your soft feet dancing

hummingbird wings aflutter beneath

the echoes of footfalls on tile floor,

sharp voices crying out “breathe”,

the snip of scissors cutting cord,

and husky words echoing “its a boy”

I feel your wings overshadowing us

as I sit beside the bed-side

of a brown haired man,

tubed, wired, and worn beyond his years.

Your wings fall firm as a hand

joining mine on shoulders wet with tears

chaplain 1

I see you dance O Sister Spirit

a-glitter with florescent hallway lights

twirling like flowers caught in spring wind

swirling in the many-hued patterns shining bright

upon monitors buzzing over patient bed sides

the dances which end where life begins

“Sister Death,” sweet Francis called you,

but I know your true name: Life Angel.

st francis sister death

Reborn Like a Pheonix

eagles” Bless the Living One, O my soul,

and do not forget all Their benefits—

… who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

 

One of the darkest times in my life was the year 2015.  In that year, multiple losses unmoored me, shaking me to my core.

A friend of over a decade passed in a way that brought to mind the loss of one of my closest college friends, suddenly and without warning.  Then a long time mentor passed, as he succumbed to the final effects of a long-time illness.   And, as the final blow, my wife of a dozen years died in her sleep from a neurological condition she had been battling for some three years.

griefThat morning I woke to find her not breathing, it was like the ground had fallen out beneath me and all the brightness blotted out from the sky.   I felt like I was plunging into blackness.

I remember sitting speechless, heart broken, wondering how I could even go on.  How would life ever be worth living again?

I did what I could to keep going – at times forcing myself to reach out and connect with friends, forcing myself to be active in things in the community that were life giving, going through the motions at work sometimes empty and dead inside.  Then one day, I began to notice light and beauty again.  I began to notice the birds singing in the trees, the quiet rustle of deer in the woods, the joy in my chest from full-throated laughter with friends.  Something clicked and I felt alive again.

nc birds 1

Now, over two years since that first loss and more than a year from Katharine’s passing in her sleep, I find myself again awake to and in love with life.  I am active and engaged in the work that drives me.  I am engaged in the community, again connecting with new and long-time people in my life.

I have seen this transformation occur in my work as chaplain and minister.  Individuals who felt their life was falling apart around them discovered it afresh.  Some lost themselves due to the pain of loss or the way in which incurable illness separated them from their idea of who they were.  Some lost connection with themselves through experiences of abuse or relationships ending.chaplain 1

Yet, as they connected with what I call God, they begin to regain a sense of life, meaning, purpose, and drive again, even though not all of them use the name “God” to describe this source of newness and life.

This discovering of life again is exactly what the Psalmist describes in the language of youth being renewed like an eagle.  In the ancient world, the molting of an eagle where it lost old feathers and gained new ones was viewed in a similar way to the story of the phoenix in Western mythology.  Its old self dying, in the phoenix’s case through fire and in the eagle’s case through molting, it returned renewed and alive again.

phoenix

The presence of the Living One is found in those experiences when, in the face of feeling destroyed and dead, we discover life again.  We come to ourselves when long estranged by the pain, trauma, grief, and loss that weigh upon us and at times find even deeper life and meaning.

How have you experienced this in your life?  How have those close to you?

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Week in the Work: Justice and the Delight of God

In this moving sermon by Rev. Carla Gregg-Kearns of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Cary, NC, Gregg-Kearns  explores the ways both God delights in us as well as the role of justice in our lives of faith.

In upbeat, concise words Rev. Gregg-Kearns calls us to the heart of our faith as progressive Christians.  I hope her message helps you find footing in a topsy turvy time for many of us.

Also, just a shout out about this ministry.  Good Shepherd is a very welcoming church, not just in theology but in warmly embracing all visitors, right in the heart of the Triangle.  It has lively worship and heartfelt preaching that connects every week.  If you are looking for a good place to worship in the Triangle in North Carolina, I would consider checking out Good Shepherd.

Also, I like to highlight different southern voices that are progressive people of faith in the Week in the Word. If you can suggest some good communities of faith, speakers, or messages to highlight, let me know.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Framed Radiance

On the theme of embracing the goodness in each moment, I am reminded of a poem I wrote related to an experience witnessing the day’s simple beauty on one of my morning predawn hikes up the Duke Forest trail, which I wrote last month and call “Framed Radiance”.

I hope it blesses you!

Micah

 

Framed Radiance

tree-moonAs my breath floats before me in clouds

Leaves sparkling with morning frost crunching beneath my boot

I am struck by the sight

Of a radiant orb suspended in the remaining darkness

Framed like works of arts,

Like my mother’s paintings which hang upon all my walls,

By branches of elm, oak, and pine

At points outstretched arms embracing the fast-falling light

At times tangling paths, intertwining here and there in the thick cloak of darkness,

At times shooting out their own way there

Illumined by this crystalline light

 

I look down at the winding path I am on, remembering

My many winding ways

And I too for a moment feel framed, embraced

By an un-named brightness

Embracing Life’s Goodness

eagles” Bless the Living One, O my soul,

and do not forget all Their benefits—

… who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

As I reflect further on this Psalm, which fleshes out the meaning of the Divine name, Yahweh or Jehovah, which God gives to Moses in Exodus 3-4, I am struck by how picturesque the King James rendering of this verse is:

“Who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

To me that rendering gives the image of one sitting at a festive dinner table, say at Christmas or Thanksgiving, full and restful.  Their mouth is still savoring the delectable tastes which they have enjoyed.

dinner-table-lBoth renderings of the Psalms, though, identify the presence and working of this One who Lives, this source of true & abundant life, who is revealed to Moses in our experience of goodness and the good things in life.

This is interesting to me with the twin religious backgrounds that framed my own spiritual awakening.

As a child, my parents raised me in the Adventist sect known as the Church of God.   This group was an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventists who believed in a strict adherence to what they saw the Bible describing.  So if it was in the Bible, we ought to try to do it.  If not, we ought to avoid it.  This practice meant as an early child, we had no birthday parties, no Christmas gifts, no Easter bunny.  These things, the preachers of the Church of God said, are not in the Bible.   Also, no pork at uncle John’s pig picking because – well, the Bible says if you eat pork, you become an abomination.  These were the tip of iceberg in regards to the challenging and different lifestyles my Church of God childhood called me to live out.

As you can imagine, to live out all the strict rules of the Church of God of my childhood required withdrawing from the world a bit.    As a child this strict type of living kept me from important family gatherings.   No Christmas parties, no gathering around the tree with grandma and grandpa or the cousins.   No pig-pickings and dancing that followed, at least not until high school. With that starting place, though much has improved, I still am not as close to cousins, aunts, and uncles as I wish I was even as an adult for, though each of us (even mom and dad) all in different ways abandoned the legalistic backgrounds I grew up in around the beginning of my teen years.

pig pickinThis withdrawal from the world affected relationships with school and what groups I could join.  I remember distinctly sitting outside, with a coloring book, hearing the other kids play and laugh to games at a Christmas party around the time I was 8, because mom and dad, following the dictums of the Adventist Church of God movement, sent a “keep Micah out of all things Christmas” note with me to school.  It was a lonely, rejected feeling to be outside of the fun and friendship occurring in the main school classroom.

I remember too, having to avoid sports groups, music, and events that went on from Friday night to Saturday sundown, since we were told that was the Sabbath and told there must be “no seeking after your own pleasures”.   I remember trying to understand why Cub Scouts, playing T-Ball, or going to a get-together with a friend was something I had to avoid, while feeling that isolating feeling of being like an outsider in my own community.

Religious language was used to justify these rules, with the deep distrust of the good things of this world they taught.   I can remember preachers quoting Revelation’s call for people to “Come out of her”, in reference to Babylon the great Whore, whom they viewed revelation whore of babylonas a symbol for all the deceptive ways the world and its pleasures could lead you astray.  In fact, some preachers would go so far and say this world was not God’s world but the devil’s world, since people were living without following the strict rules God gave.   They looked forward to a “world tomorrow” when Jesus returned, in which the good things could be enjoyed without threat of being contaminated and led astray by their deceptive temptations.

These calls to “come out” from the world were often linked to a repeated quoting of the book of Jeremiah, where the prophet warns us that the heart is deceitful above all things and exceedingly wicked, so who can trust it?   Such tradition taught me in my early years to distrust the good things as they emerge in my life, to expect that pleasure and comfort will come with painful cost.  It taught me too to mistrust my own heart, for it will surely deceive me if I listen to it and lead me astray.

Another major influence during my spiritual awakening in my teens was the charismatic movement, which fostered a radically different attitude toward goodness, pleasure, and enjoying the world that is in front of us.

My exposure to the charismatic movement was in my high school Christian club, a group revival-healingwhere my faith in many ways began to become my own. There I learned to be open to my emotions in prayer, to trust that it is in the very heart I had been taught to not listen to in my childhood Adventist experience that the Spirit moves and speaks.

Also, some charismatics I met came to believe that God wanted you to have here and now what made life good.  If you pray and trust, God can heal diseases.  God can give wealth.  God can give success.  God can lead you to that perfect spouse, that perfect family.

Just as there were excesses in my childhood experience of the Adventist movement’s take on this concept, so I witnessed excesses here.  I remember seeing people try so hard to have the faith for themselves or another to no longer experience a disease or struggle, only to have it escalate the more they tried to believe and pray.

The other night I talked with someone close to me who like me had their faith awaken among charismatics but also me now has also become deeply progressive in their theology.  We swapped stories about those close to us who we saw follow this sense of leading in their hearts they called Spirit yet which led to broken relationships, debt, falling into dangerous relationships, and all around heartache. We both had many examples.

As I return to this line from the Psalm, I wonder.  What does it mean to have the good things which God fills our life with be manifestations of God’s presence?

I think that a key is these good things are the things that renew our lives.

In truth, some things we long for and want may in fact not be good for us long term.  And it can be hard to see that in the short term.

letting-goLooking back, some of the experiences which in the moment I loved – certain jobs I worked, certain places I’ve lived, and especially certain relationships I’d been in – ultimately, long term, ended up being dead ends.  To stay in that place, to continue in that job, to remain in that relationship, would have meant becoming stuck, stagnant, and not living up to the fullness of who I can be.

And some painful experiences of loss – having a commitment I was in like a ministry or job fall apart around me, having a person I loved pass or a relationship I valued end, for instance – have been just what I needed to break me open so that I was able to grow, see the world with new eyes, and change.

Yet through it all, each of these experiences that brought me joy, relationships where I learned more about myself and others, jobs and projects where I made a difference, all brought some measure of life to me.  They helped shape me to be the person I’ve become.

We need to be open to the goodness before us, not feeling required to pull away from relationships, pleasures, joys, or good experiences as I learned to do in my childhood.  We also need to realize that there is also goodness in loss, suffering, pain, if we are open to the lessons those teach.

To look for the living God is to look for the good present both in pleasure and in moments of pain.   To stay open to where in each experience openings appear to allow you to become more full, alive, whole.

How have you lived this balance in your own life?

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah