Learning to Accept Help

vulnerability 13

Embracing our vulnerability also means embracing that being limited means you must accept help, for there is much you cannot do on your own.   When we say God knows that we are dust, we are acknowledging there is much we cannot do on our own.

In its own way, this is the brilliance of the 12 step movement.  The first step toward emotional and spiritual recovery whether from alcoholism to drug addiction to gambling problems is recognizing where we are powerlessness on our own, without something bigger than ourselves – even if it is just a wider community like the 12 step group itself, but especially if it can be understood to be God – to help us on our journey. Recognizing our need for others is then not failure but wisdom.

helping hands 2I think a huge problem in our society is so often it sends the message that to admit vulnerability, to confess our struggles, to reach out for a helping hand is failure and defeat.   So often I find women and men in my work, but especially men who like me grew up being taught to pull themselves up by their boot straps, who talk as if they have failed as Christians, as friends, as neighbors, as spouses or parents, that they cannot bear their burdens alone and must reach out for help.

I remember talking to one who was facing crippling depression who says “I wish I was not so weak”.  I turned to them and in detail pointing out all the near heroic ways they had supported their sick loved one, without asking a hand from anyone.  “You are not weak.   You are instead someone who has been strong all their own for far too long.   Anyone would strain and struggle doing all you have done – doing less even – without a help from others.  Your body and mind are letting you know it is time to allow others to stand behind you and be strong with you.”

A few images from Scripture highlight this for me.

gods handsFirst, is when God called Moses to lift up his arms and keep them lifted when Israel fought off the warring Amalekites.   God told Moses while his arms were in the air, Israel would win but Israel would begin to lose the battle.   Moses isn’t able to do it on his own.  But rather than this meaning defeat, two others – his brother Aaron and also a man named Hur – lift up and hold up his hands, so they can stay up and allow Israel to win.

We all need people to hold up our arms, to join our side as allies who help us discover strength to continue through things we cannot continue on our own.  We need to find the wisdom and strength to accept this help when it is offered.

Just such wisdom is at the heart of the Bible’s call to admit vulnerability, which is what it says when it calls us to “ confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. “ (James 5:13)   Ultimately admitting our vulnerabilities, failures, all saints 2and limitations to others opens us up to healing, strengthen, and blessing to flow to and through us because admitting these opens us up to the unique gifts and strengths others have that we lack.  Their unique gifts and strengths enable them to be there in ways we cannot alone, so that with their unique help we can be there for ourselves and others in ways we never could alone.  As the Civil Rights movement has often claimed, we are better together.

How have you struggled to embrace accepting help when offered or reaching out for help?  In what way has embracing this call of vulnerability opened up your life in new ways?

I’d love to hear your story.

Let’s continue this journey together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Songs of Discovery

I thought I would share a few poems on discovering our deepest selves, which connect with the themes of Psalm 103 we are discussing.

 

Secret Passage

big sister“There’s a secret passageway in grandma’s old room,”

said my same older sister

who once whispered to us tales of ancestors

who came not from the poor pig farmers

on daddy’s family tree

but instead born of a long forgotten prince

who gave up his rich palace for love

leading him to settle on Carolina shores.

secret passageLike those quickly disproved fairy tales she weaved

my heart leaped with wonder on this story

imagining my own private wardrobe door

with which I could transport to a world of magic wonder,

my own personal Narnia.

I searched under bed, in closet, and by every wall crease

for light from this secret pathway

until, frustrated with my efforts,

daddy showed us the door which lay

high atop the closet’s ceiling

popping our shimmering bubble of childlike dreaminess

with his ever brooding realism

“There ain’t nothing up there but insulation.

It leads nowhere but the attic”.

secret passage 2It took years to realize,

though her facts were off,

my sister’s promise was true:

all along I carried such a door with me,

my own personal transport to new worlds.

I found it on that day my world split open

when tumbling I like Dorothy fell through the rabbit hole

my eyesight gazing deep within.

The well to wonder that opened

to places bigger on the inside

and more full of light

was the shape of the spiderweb of cracks

which had spread

across the shattered glass of a broken heart.

Truly broken places

birthed the light of beauty

beckoning me within

where I discover daily

vistas of glory unimaginable.

 

Recovery Festival

Like trumpets of war I heard rough southern drawl

echoing across the pine wood skin

hellfire preaching

and a fist hammering the untarnished face

of a podium in a storefront southern church.

“Are you saved brother?” he cries,

“The altar is open. Come on down,

we have room for more”.

I remember hearing that cry

amidst thirty verses of “Just as I Am”

feeling my heart pulled like metal scrap to lodestone

though to me it was already clear

Jesus I knew

and Jesus knew me.

 

Yet I found myself

feeling damaged

broken asunder

like glass upon pavement

shattered glass.jpg

now adrift on rainbowed pool of oil,

beautifully tragic beyond all cleansing,

by that preacher’s siren song.

 

That was not the day I gazed deep

beneath what others saw,

plunging beneath the waters

ocean

salty with tears

and cold with fears

that lay beneath

the splintered mirror

of my soul.

 

It came far later

amidst momma’s scattered boxes,

crates of jewels and receipts

gathering dust

after her manic shopping sprees

revealing my content, as well as their own–

my memories of hiding

6410-001172

little and alone

from the rising tide

her waves of emotion brought

the feeling of hands covering my ears

from shouts that rose

like the rhythmic shaking

of military bombs on Fort Bragg streets

when daddy lifted cups of “special punch”

to his not quite ever parched lips.

 

That salty wetness

rising from my own tears

was my baptism

which cold and crisp

against my skin

woke me anew.

anabaptist baptizin

In that moment I knew myself,

and began a long journey to wholeness.

 

His echoing shouts of salvation,

Gospel truth be known,

now taste like ash on my tongue.

Angry-God

His calls causing me to recoil

carrying still with them

the lingering smells of brimstone

hanging like a sulfurous cloud

calling me to my imminent end.

 

I find instead

beneath the wreckage in my soul

piling high as some abandoned lighthouse

abandone lighthouserising just like those paint brushes, glue sticks, and cut fabric

borne of her creative projects dropped mid-stroke

and get rich quick schemes gone wrong.

 

Beneath an edifice that feels as high as the long-leaf pine,

I find

shuddering

squirming

miraculously alive

a sparkling treasure as yet unseen

more precious than the fabled gold

I am told

pirates left hidden off Carolina coast.

Shining like such

long-lost piles of coins

found resting

upon Ocracoke or Hatteras beach

lit by summer sun on Atlantic waves

mother holding baby 1I find him,

radiant and shining —

a baby boy

somehow untarnished amidst the pain,

unbroken as when he emerged

aglow with the Spirit’s bright fire,

Her original blessing still upon him

like dew resting on the cool grass

of Appalachian hillside in spring.

 

That plunge beneath

one fateful April morn

led me to this fated find

the treasure of myself

not shattered beyond all fixing

like he with thunderous voice proclaimed

but

inner-peace (1)myself as I was before being broken,

as when Spirit breathed me forth

glistening with the starry hues

of divine essence

my only swaddling clothes

floating into daylight from Her

like some glistening bubble lifted on wind

from sudsy tub.

 

So, keep your words of salvation, sister.

I’ll go with recovery anyday,

recovering who I am

hamsaand have always been

in my Maker’s eye

as I learn

to make true the maxim

that “the eye with which I see Godde

is the eye with which Godde seems me”

Finding Rest in our Deepest Identity, Truest Self

common-working-people-2Embracing our vulnerability and limits involves coming to finding rest in your identity.  Our success-driven, accomplishment-focused society so often makes it seem as if our identity is wrapped up in what we do or what we acquire.   Isn’t so often the first question asked upon meeting someone “what do you for a living?”   And isn’t much of how we end up judging others or ourselves our standard of living – in other words, how nice our house, car, or clothes are?   Yet the flip-side of this ritual of ashes is another ritual: the placing not of ashes but instead of water on one’s forehead.   When my nephew was baptized as a baby, he literally had water poured on his forehead, and for many people I know this water is also placed as a cross of water or sprinkling of water on their forehead by a preacher when they too were very little.  Others, like me, were dunked as a teenager into water so it not only splashed on our forehead but embraced all of who we were, so that we came up dripping wet.

john baptizer 3

Whichever form our baptism takes it is a claiming for ourselves, an acceptance, of that same word spoken over Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan.  When Jesus was baptized by his cousin John, the Gospels all tell us he saw the heavens open, the Spirit descending and resting upon him like a mother dove brooding over her newborn chick, and heard the voice from heaven saying of him: “This is my Son, whom I love, and in whom I am well-pleased”.  This happened of Jesus before he could do anything to prove his identity.  It happened regardless of what his class was – likely fairly low in the society of his day – or his background – born scandalously, to a mother who allegedly became pregnant out of wedlock.

The water on our forehead which welcomes us into the Christian life also is the community saying to us, on behalf of God, that each of us are ones upon whom the Spirit has descended, like a mother bird sheltering her chicks under wing .  It announces that we each are ones whose entrance into this world was like heavens opening to send a unique gift, and of whom God says before we can do anything right or wrong, regardless of any success or failure on our part: “This one.  This one is my child.   This one is the one whom I love.  This one is one in whom I am well-pleased”.

Baptism-of-Christ (1)

It is a statement that our identity is as a child of God, a creation made with love, full of gifts, and beauty.  It is not based on accomplishment, power, ability.

In fact, just as the ashes on the forehead is a statement of vulnerability and limit as gift, so is this act of baptism.  In Romans we are told going under the water is a symbol of dying with Jesus, being buried, and a promise that it is not despite but within this experience of dying and vulnerability that the gift and grace of new life becomes possible to us.

vulnerability baby

Likewise, in being called child of God, we are being recognized as limited.  We do not love our children because they enter the world all-capable, but in fact fully aware they need us.  They do not come into the world able to feed, clothe, and care for themselves.  And their stumbling attempts to learn and grow which reveal their limits and vulnerability actually endear them to us.   We love them for who they are, accepting their limits as gifts and joys.  So God looks at us, loving us for who we are, not what we have and have not done.

In embracing our vulnerability and limits, we are called to embrace this identity as unique people, gifts to the world, children of God – always worthy of love, always both sources of pleasure to God and others and always deserving of joy, pleasure, in our lives.  We are embracing that this is true whether we are strong and successful in the eyes of others or experiencing loss, weakness, and need.

vulnerability as openness

In centering our identity on this, we open ourselves up to embracing each moment and each person as including gifts and graces, both where those bring strength but also where they bring struggle.  In doing so, we allow ours and other’s struggles to be teachers, opening us to new wisdom and strength.

How have you struggled to embrace your identity as being centered not on accomplishment or failure, but on who you are as a child of God?   I would love to hear your story.

Let us continue on this journey together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

 

Song of the South: Smoke and Sparks, Til I’m Too Old To Die Young

Southern literature, according to Flannery O’Connor, paints a picture of a “Christ-haunted landscape”.  I find traditional southern music and literature richly describes the vulnerability and weakness we are discussing in reflecting on Psalm 103’s description of us all as dust and ashes.

One song in this tradition which I think of often during my work as a hospice chaplain is Grant Lee Phillips’ “Smoke and Sparks”.  Another is “Til I’m Too Old to Die Young”  Both beautifully pictures to me both the fragility and vulnerability we carry in our lives, and also the enduring all-surrounding grace that surrounds our days offering hope that such vulnerability is not the final word — both of which Psalm 103 points us toward.  May it bless you today!

Micah

 

 

Songs of Vulnerability

I want to share two poems about my own experience of vulnerability.

The first describes my own struggle through a recent grief, and the other the way I found life in the midst of it.

I would love if you shared how you came to grips with your own experience of vulnerability.

Micah

 

“Grasping Through Morning Shadows”

rain on tin roof

The days darkness fell over me in sheets
cold, wet, and grimy
like the unexpected summer showers
that caught me when Paul and I went running,
searching, exploring summer nights in my teens
mixed with the filthy dust of smog-filled spring mornings
with air that tasted of cigarette ash and burning plastic
that I gulped down nervously
while sitting beside a busy L. A. street waiting for my bus.

Those mornings when waking was like falling into dreams
I moved like my feet were stuck to sun-melted asphalt streets
And my skin goose pimpled as my body was chilled even to the bones.

 

Heart Song

mistRising like all enveloping cloud,

morning mist which both conceals color, distance, and faces
while revealing shape and feeling,
even of tiny pebbles that are but pin pricks on the soles of my feet,
embraces me in cool dampness.

I cannot see the dimly lit dropoff but a few feet away
that mountainside beyond which lies unspeakable beauty
made visible by simple stroke of sun’s golden fingertips
yet now shrouded by silky threads of fog which
shelter us like those many pinioned swings the Psalm sang of falling over us.

mist 2

And yet, though unseen,
such looming depth seems more visible
a pull like gravity
both promising and threatening like the hoot of the screech owl heard in the evening
screech owlto which my own wild man wakes up,
a call which that part of me still pumping
the blood of hunter gatherer tribesmen
through my veins
on hearing longs to walk
the green trail
hear the rustle of leaves
sing the song of the creeks
join in the heart song of growing things
yet alarming like the distant call of the train upon the mountain
which shatters sleep in an instant
a moment in which that high pitched wail,
growing ever louder, seems to call out my name.

And perhaps it does.
Perhaps I do hear some long black train, the one old songs name.
long black trainPerhaps such beauty does remind me
that it swooped down for her – unexpected, unbidden.
Such shock lies on the horizon of my mind, always present.

God knows I hear that train song each day,
as my palm graces the back of a strong woman,
fierce in pride and independence
now wasted to skeleton,
days from cancer taking her
yet still afire with poise, grace, and beauty.

God knows I hear that wail, loud and shrill,
as I hold the hand of a man tough as nails,
face grizzled by years
seeing the light of your coming in his eyes
like sunrise reflected on the dancing blue green of the Eno’s winding waters
and see his face break into childlike grin at the sound of his name upon your voice.

Perhaps so
and yet
deer in woodsbeneath it all in the thick mist
gathered around me like grandma’s blanket
thick and comforting
I hear the song
sung by the call of birds
the rustle of deer almost hidden in the trees
the cry of the katydid
the whistle of a morning pot of tea
and the quiet coo of newborn child

Though I will always hear your call,
oh long black train,
it is to this song I will not fail to move,
my body a wave on its passing river
my heartbeat a note in its melody.

Those mornings, when awakening might come with nightmare scream,
when I remembered her lifeless form
remembered as my hand stroked the empty place beside me,
cold to the touch as cold as her hand when I, heart in my chest, rang the paramedics.

Those mornings, when pulling the sheet off my face
was like leaping off the cliff, often I felt frozen by fear,
two things were like the candle
blazing bright as a thousand suns
though only a pinprick of light
in the canvas sheet of my surrounding darkness:

Cold wet noses,
slobbery with canine love that called me to lay the armor away.
For if I curled up and lay down, letting my soul die too, where were they?
Walking them in the winter wood
my eyes would open for but a moment
to the sunlight sliding through the leaves
to the sight of squirrels busy with their errands
to the life splashing wet upon river rock
and I lived.

and her words “I ache every day
yet I must choose my joy.
I must live while I have breath.”
If, when pain stole sight from her eyes,
so I had to steady her each morning
she could grasp the thread of joy
I must hear my breath
listen to its message
I must crawl out of my borrowed tomb
I must leave my prison
and remember
while I live each moment I must find my joy
Each breath is a call, a gift, a challenge
to grab my golden thread
and, with the creek,
though my voice cracks in the effort,
find the strength to sing.

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A Week in the Word –Beyond Excuses

Each week in our “Week in the Word” feature, I like to highlight a message from a voice of faith here in the south-land which speaks to the issues of our day, or calls us to a deeper spirituality.

https://unitedchurch.org/sermon/reverend-jill-milidonis-edens-02192017/

In this message, Rev. Dr. Jill Edens, soon to retire after over three decades of being a leading progressive voice here in North Carolina, speaks to how we often come up with high-minded excuses or exclusions to the costly way of Jesus.   Dr. Edens makes the powerful case that when we realize Jesus does not call us to try to follow him all on our own, but calls us into deep community, such excuses and exclusions fall to the wayside.  We are better together, and through rooting ourselves in and building up communities committed to making Jesus’ vision a reality, we can do together what seems impossible alone.  I can’t think of a more important message today.  I hope it blesses you like it blessed me.

If you have a message you’ve seen or heard from progressive voices of faith here in the south-land, please let me know so I can highlight them.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

 

Blessed by Ash and Dust: The Gift of Vulnerability and Limit

vulnerability 11

I continue to reflect on Psalm 103, where the Psalmist fleshes out the meaning of the name for God given to Moses at the burning bush: Yawheh or Jehovah, which is often rendered “Lord” in all caps but God explains in Exodus 3 by saying “I am Who I am”, “I will be who I will be”.  This name, I suggested, comes from the Hebrew word “to be” and seems to mean something like “the One who Exists”, “the One who Lives” as opposed to the empty images for God we invent in our various self-made religions.

In Psalm 103, the Psalmist fleshes out who this Living One is by celebrating each of the places in which we experience Them.

Last time I looked at the presence of God found in the grace, mercy, and lovingkindness that embraces all of our lives.

I feel a need to focus in again on part of the section of Psalm 103 we just explored:

“14 For They know how we were made;

remembering that we are dust.

15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;

they flourish like a flower of the field;

16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,

and its place knows it no more.

17 But the steadfast love of the One Who Lives is from everlasting to everlasting

on those who fear Them,

Their righteousness to children’s children,

18 to those who keep Their covenant

remembering to walk in Their commandments.”

 

chaplain 1

One of the most moving experiences of my training to become a chaplain was working Ash Wednesday at UNC Hospital.   Each of us chaplain residents, paired with a chaplain intern, were given a container full of ashes and asked to go to every one of our patients and nurses in our assigned part of the hospital offering to leave a grayish smudge in the center of their forehead through extending the imposition of ashes to them,.

In a singular way, there was something to this act in such a place of sickness and healing, death and rebirth,.  Our taking this Biblical symbol of mortality and fragility and placing them on the heads of those in the in-between space on the edge of life and death, sickness and healing had profound resonance.    As the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust; remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” echoed with each blessing, the way in which each life hung in the balance, dangling at a hair’s breadth, was tangible. Dust that was once living palm leaves which pictured Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, now burned down to dust & ash, revealed the tenuous situation not just of those laying in hospital beds but us all.

ash wednesday vulnerability

 

I wrote a poem during my year of chaplain residency which reflects much of this feeling:

 

Life Angel

ash wednesday 3

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”

 

AngelI 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

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.

lady wisdom 2

 

What amazed me about this experience was not so much how tangible our nearness to death, disease, vulnerability felt, but instead how readily people embraced, even sought out, these ashes and this blessing, while at this point.  When I began the task, I felt self-conscious.   How could it be good pastoral care to remind very sick people that they were but a stone’s throw from their life ending?  Surely, they did not need to even more fully feel how on the brink each of their lives were, did they?

 

ash vulnerability wednesdayYet the reminder that they are mortal, limited, with no more strength than dust or permanence than ash, was embraced as a gift and comfort by so many people.  Receiving these ashes acted as  a reminder, perhaps, that they did not need to believe in such moments it was all up to them.  No, rather, they could like a child rest in the care of a grace and life wider and deeper than their own wisdom, sturdier than their own strength which they could feel faltering as they lay in their beds.  The ways in which their eyes would brighten or tear up at this reminder was a lesson to me.   There is a gift in accepting our vulnerability and our limits.

 

One of my favorite quotes, written by spiritual writer Marianne Williamson, perhaps captures this well:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Return to Love).

dying child 2Williamson intends her words as a reminder of our own power which so much in our lives teaches us to deny.  I think there is a sense in which some of us need this reminder.  Some of us, whether through abuse or through others dismissing us, or a culture that minimizes the ability or voice of people like us, walk away feeling powerless over our lives.  We do feel the need to shrink, to be less than we are in all our fullness.  When this is us, we might fear believing we have God-given beauty, power, and strengths.

Yet what I experienced on those hospital floors was the flip side of this cosmic coin.   I witnessed people who were facing deeply into situations beyond their own power and ability.  They felt all alone, overwhelmed by the enormity of pain, illness, and loss.  In such situations the thought that it is up to us, of our own inner immense power, can also be negative.  More than that, it can be downright overwhelming.

In her book The Intimacy Factor, counselor Pia Melody talks about the many ways in which we can become damaged in our ability to relate in life-giving ways to ourselves and others.   She speaks at length of ways in which as children we can get the message Williamson’s quote is meant to address: that we are powerless, worthless, unable and undeserving.   Yet she also talks about how we can also get the message while vulnerable children that we are far too powerful than we need to be.

Children, for instance, who learn that it is their job to take care of the adults in their lives, meeting the emotional needs of hurting and depressed mothers and fathers, or looking out for alcoholic or drug-addicted adults to make sure they are safe, can deal with this by overcompensating.   Such a messaging in our upbringing can make us feel it is all up to us.  We stand alone, and if negative things happen, it is clearly our fault.  We can beat ourselves up, blaming ourselves for the difficult situations we face.  Alternately, we can feel responsible.  We must know the answers all the time.  We must do all the work on our own.   It is up to us.  And most of all, we must never need or seek help, for that is weakness.

mother helping child find way

I see this in my work with the sick, the dying, and their families.   People feel somehow it must be their fault they or someone they love has gotten sick.  If only they had caught the disease’s symptoms.  If only they had been more healthy or pushed the one they loved to make healthier choices earlier.    If only…

Actually, this deep guilt, grief, and shame flows from a part of ourselves that has been taught we are so responsible, we must also stand in a place reserved in Christian spirituality for God alone.  For what we are saying is “I ought to have known everything”, “I ought to have been all-powerful”, “I ought to need no saving”.    When such feelings arise, being reminded of our limitedness, our vulnerability, can be a pure gift.    Through that act of ash being placed on people’s foreheads, the promise of this text in Psalm 103 is made tangible, felt on our very skin:  God knows that how we are made, God knows that we are dust.  God knows we are limited, impermanent, with only so much time, energy, and capacity. It is not despite our vulnerability we are embraced, loved, supported, by God, but with full knowledge of it on God’s end.

God calls us too to embrace our limits, our vulnerability.  To know it is ok if we get exhausted, ok if we get overwhelmed, ok if some days it is all just too much.

To know that it is ok that, when we face the weight of the world’s problems, we only have so much we can do.   To know it is ok, too, to reach out for help.

Facing into our vulnerability allows us to accept and embrace life and, ironically, to find our own power to be a support to others, and to be ones who bring beauty and healing to our world, even more deeply.  It is not through ignoring our vulnerability, limits, and pain that we can become these vessels of beauty and healing but rather through facing them and accepting them as a part of the gift of who we are.

I want to spend the next few posts sharing a bit about what embracing our own vulnerability looks like and how this embrace of our vulnerability can be an experience of the living presence of God.

Please join me on this journey and share your own experience as well.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah