Spirituality

(An) Embodied Prayer

Marching with the AFB

Even though this is one of the happiest moments of my life, I never published this photo because of how I looked. Doing so now is an act of love, kindness, and prayer.

Two words concerning prayer life resonate with me this week: intention and attention. I sometimes fret about my prayer life, especially when I hear my fellow seminarians openly talking about theirs; I even have a professor outside of this class who returns our attention to prayer life. This week’s reading reminds us that naming our longing to be always in relationship with diving (intention) and by paying attention to where we see God in our daily life (attention) remind us of divine presence and grace.

Reflecting this week, I sought connections between my praying self and embodied self. I realized that an important connection is the esteem in which I hold my spiritual and physical being–or the regrettable lack thereof. So I would like now to discuss body issues and return to embodied praying.

I came across two pictures of myself a few months ago. The first was of myself on my wedding day, taken by my new husband. It was a snapshot, and I was looking at him over my shoulder. My first thought was how young and beautiful I was–and at the time I did not realize it. I was never not weight conscious. Realizing the many gaps of pertinent information here, I will say that my husband, who struggled with his sexuality throughout our marriage, had no words to express his inner turmoil; however, he did have words to turn his issues around toward me. One example: I never fixed a plate of food for myself in sixteen years that he did not look at and comment about my weight. As you can imagine, this affected me deeply. I have apologized to the girl in the first photo.

The second photo is of me at about age 37. I am bloated and look unhealthy. No longer married, working on my doctorate, in a new relationship, starting a great adventure in a new state–my body tells a deeper tale. It is one of insecurity, uncertainty, and a different kind of unhappiness. More gaps, I know, but I was struck by this picture in which I looked like a completely different person, one who was dancing–and apparently eating–as fast as she could. I apologized to the beautiful woman in that picture, too.

Reaching middle age–I am 55–has forced me to communicate with my body. I am aware of new aches and pains; it takes me a few seconds of walking before the muscles catch up (I call it having a “hitch in my getalong'”); and I am having to become acquainted with the grayed and wrinkling woman in the mirror. Thing is, I know this body has fewer days left than it has experienced, and that’s ok. When I do see that lady in the mirror, I assure her that she is beautiful and that I appreciate her–that face, that body. I promise her to live in such a way that I will mindfully value her now, in this moment, so that I never look back with regret at failing to do so.

This is what praying with my body feels like–gratefulness to God for my body as a presence in God’s divine creation–no fear of scales or mirrors or photos. Just thankfulness for this familiar likeness.

Coda: I read somewhere that 65% of women report that they have cancelled a doctor appointment because they do not want to step on the scale at check in. I myself have done this. Yes, read that again because it is in fact incredulous. Last week I had my check up. In I walked with the nurse who held my chart and directed me to the scale. “We have to do this,” she said, “but don’t worry, it’ll be over in a minute.” I boldly stepped up on the scale, keeping my shoes and jacket on this time. “It’s ok,” I replied, “I’m good.”

Thoughts on Prayer Following the Christchurch Massacre

As I write this, another heinous mass shooting has taken place by white supremacists, this time in New Zealand. Almost 50 of our Muslim neighbors were murdered and 20 seriously injured, killed while they were praying. This attack is on my mind and heart as I contemplate this week’s Core Forum on prayer. As one public figure tweeted this morning, “Whether it is antisemitism in Pittsburgh, racism in Charlottesville, or the xenophobia and Islamophobia to day, violent hate is on the march at home and abroad….Silence is complicity.” I include this because the connection is made to multiple groups that are targeted for no other reason than hatred of any particular difference. The city where this atrocity occurred is called, ironically or not, Christchurch.

I have a chaplet that has inspired my prayer this week. If any of you are like I was and do not know what a chaplet is, it is a kind of small rosary–a prayer object–that usually has a saint medallion/object attached to the beads. Mine has two medallions. The first is St. Francis, whose prayer I have always loved, and the other, newer one is Julian of Norwich, whose mystical experiences inspire me. Julian’s words also comfort me like a gentle voice and touch soothes a child: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. I also made this quote my phone wallpaper–a postmodern engagement with the 15th century mystic. Still, when I see the words, I pray them. I’m thinking Fundamentalist Evangelicals do not a rule pray chaplets or contemplate icons in our prayer life. That’s unfortunate because for me it has deepened my prayers. Henri Nouwen says, “Icons…lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God” (p. 61). Whether icons are kinesthetic like mine, or natural, they open us to the Mystery of God’s presence.

The politician’s quote, above, suggests to us that the end to hatred and violence–peace–comes at a great price: our psychological, emotional, and embodied engagement. I am reminded that when the messages of MLK, JFK, and RFK turned from civil rights to peace, their lives were extinguished. The work of peace is a work of justice, and justice is the nature of God. Thoughts and prayers are not acts of peace in the world; prayer is that place of mystery where we might know that all will be well. Prayer is the interior castle (Teresa of Avila) where we are lost with and strengthened by our Beloved. Prayer is not what we do for the oppressed; prayer is what we do for ourselves so that we can have the strength to do the hard work of justice. God waits for us.

Coda: When John Lennon’s “Imagine” was released in 1971, it scared people–Christians who feared the new peaceful, global social order it suggested. In an interview with Playboy magazine, Lennon said that Dick Gregory had given Ono and him a Christian prayer book, which inspired the concept behind “Imagine.” A prayer book. He said,

The concept of positive prayer … If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true … the World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to ‘Imagine’ and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed [me] they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea. (Wikipedia).

They were right to be scared, for it calls for an end of systems of domination, by definition the domain of the dominant culture. I wonder if we are any more willing to pray it today.

Imagine (a Prayer)

The lyrics are below.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today (ah ah ah)
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

The Curious State of Being “Called”

Maybe at some point in your life you have been called by God for some purpose. If you have and you realize it, all I can say is wow. How did you know? Did you hear a voice? Did you have a feeling around your heart or stomach area? Was there only circumstantial evidence?

call is different from a calling. I’ve heard teachers and nurses say that that they felt a calling toward their profession; a calling is a strong urge toward a particular thing, usually a vocation. A call is a divine summons. Let that sink in.

I grew up in a church that did not believe in divine summons or of being led by the Spirit. We were fundamentalist Christians who believe that the Bible is literal, mostly, unless it isn’t. People who talked about being called by God to the ministry were obviously Jesus freaks, most likely Baptists. And then, again, God laughs. Yeah, I was called. I’m not sure if I can stress how hard it is to understand that a call is a call when you don’t believe in calls at all. I think I would compare it to a dog being leashed for a walk for the first time. At first, it’s like, “Hey, wow, what is this I’m feeling?” And then, “Wait a minute….what is this thing?” Next, is pulling back and tugging, followed by flailing around from side to side. Until finally, you’re completely worn out from fighting it. Then you’re ready to walk. This is the first part of a process that is known as discernment.

Have you ever felt like God was just putting things in your way? Not obstacles, more like lit up “Entrance” signs in strange dark rooms. In that situation, what are you going to do but go in? That’s what happened to me. It started when I read the liturgy at church one Sunday morning (nope, I’m not fundamentalist anymore, nor Baptist either). I felt that leash for the first time. I’ll just take a course on Progressive Christianity, I said. I like this course; I’ll see if I can find a really good online program. Then, if the M.A. in Christian Ministry is this rewarding, I want to pursue the twice-the-credit-hours Master of Divinity. What was God putting in the way? Time, opportunity, scholarship support, people who kept saying, “Oh! You’d be so great at ministry!”

So what about the pulling back and flailing around part of this walk? It’s pretty much been ongoing to this point. I mean, I have a job, a doctorate, and an established writing presence in my academic field. I’m at the place where people usually arrive, not where they jump off from. Luckily, the first class you take in seminary is called Spiritual Formation, where you learn that discernment is being still and listening for God. It’s ok not to know what to do, just don’t get tied up in knots over it, which is my default. When I got serious about listening to God, I settled down and started walking.

So here I am: MDiv student at the McAfee School of Theology. I’m still working full-time at a job that is truly not bad. I’ve put academic writing on pause until the next page is revealed to me, no pun intended. That’s the background of it, and I think it’s sufficient for now.

 

Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR)

This week a group of us from Pilgrimage United Church of Christ (PUCC) went to the 20th Transgender Day of Remembrance ceremony in Atlanta. Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is an observance every year on November 20 that honors the memory of those whose lives were lost in acts of anti-transgender violence. We went to pay respect and to support two of our members, Monica and Darlene. Darlene organized the ceremony and is a strong presence in Atlanta’s transgender community. Her wife Monica is a Navy Vet who served on a submarine. Monica is extremely proud to be a veteran. She wore her USN cap when she was recognized at Atlanta Braves games–and when she was an Atlanta Pride Parade Grand Marshall this year. Monica designed the Transgender flag, below. The original is in the Smithsonian in D.C.

Transgender Flag

Transgender Flag, Designed by Monica Helms, USN, Ret.

The first thing you should know is trans people are murdered, and when they are, they are victims of trans-related hate crimes.

These are persons who often leave homes so that they can live their true identities, their true selves, often at great cost to themselves. And when they die, as I learned at the Atlanta observance, that identity is stripped away from them. How? Families, obituaries, police reports, newspapers refer to them by their “dead names,” their name before transition. What difference does that make? Well, after having fought so hard for true self, dead naming erases that self in a final, crushing blow. Still not clear? Ok, when cis-people (those of us whose gender identity matches the one we were assigned at birth–e.g., I am a woman, who was assigned female at birth) drop dead in a parking lot, our drivers license matches our reality–both our name and our gender would be the same. The paper reports that “Ugena, female, 55, Marietta” was found, etc., etc. If I have been living my true self as Eugene for the last decade or so, guess what? The paper would probably still report Ugena’s death. My funeral service–if my family were not too ashamed to have one–would be a farewell to Ugena. Would anyone remember Eugene? Would anyone notice or mourn me? That is what TDOR is for–to remember and remind us why it is important to remember.

The Transgender Day of Remembrance seeks to highlight the losses we face due to anti-transgender bigotry and violence. I am no stranger to the need to fight for our rights, and the right to simply exist is first and foremost. With so many seeking to erase transgender people — sometimes in the most brutal ways possible — it is vitally important that those we lose are remembered, and that we continue to fight for justice.”
– Transgender Day of Remembrance founder Gwendolyn Ann Smith

The TDOR service is, as are most funerals really, for the living. For members of the transgender community, it provides critical space for both joy and lament, laughter and tears–that for all the struggle and turmoil and oppression, they live. Not just live, but prevail. As an outsider–an ally but still an outsider–I observed these persons comfort and lift one another up. Those of us there as friends, family, and allies needed to see the strength and vibrance of a community that asks only a life of liberty, justice, and dignity. We needed to laugh and break bread together–which we did Atlanta style with Fox Brothers Barbecue. When you think about it, there are a few times in life that an opportunity for justice, hospitality, and compassion–an “integrity moment”–taps you on the shoulder. This is one of them.

Every Transgender Day of Remembrance observance concludes with a Reading of Names to honor each victim (that’s the word used at the GLAAD TDOR link). This was done, followed by a tolling of the bell, for each of the twenty-five U.S. dead and for the unnamed trans people who died violently while incarcerated. Here are their names, and if you scroll to the end of this post, there is a screenshot of the TDOR program with their photos.

  • Brooklyn BreYanna Stevenson
  • Rhiannon Layendecker
  • Christa Leigh Steel-Knudslien
  • Viccky Gutierrez
  • Celine Walker
  • Tonya Harvey
  • Zakaria Fry
  • Phylicia Mitchell
  • Amia Tyrae Berryman
  • Sasha Wall
  • Carla Patricia Flores-Pavon
  • Nicole Hall
  • Nino Fortson
  • Gigi Pierce
  • Antash’a English
  • Diamond Stephens
  • Keisha Wells
  • Cathalina Christina James
  • Sasha Garden
  • Vontashia Bell
  • Dejanay Stanton
  • Shantee Tucker
  • Londonn Moore
  • Nikki Enriquez
  • Ciara Minaj Carter Frazier
  • Those Unnamed

Another of the photos below shows the number of deaths by state. Georgia has one: Nino Fortson was killed in Atlanta on May 13. Here is a description of Nino from the HRC web site:

Fortson, 36, also went by names Nino Starr and Nino Blahnik, and was a gender-expansive individual…An active participant in Atlanta’s ballroom scene, Fortson was a member of the House of Blahnik, a national organization serving LGBTQ performers of color. Fortson was known for walking in the “Butch Realness” category.

A “gender expansive individual”–I wonder why it is that more of us don’t understand this as a gift, or a superpower? The last photo shows the number of known violent deaths of transgender persons, worldwide. There are 309. The U.S. ranks third. I would really like to live in a world where we don’t need to have another TDOR, but sadly, we seem to be moving in the other direction. Step back and think about why there is such a violent need to legislate gender. I can’t think of a reason. Yet, see articles like this one and look up #WontBeErased:

Trump’s Anti Transgender Push: 6 Things to Know

I’m finding whenever it gets really discouraging to contemplate how humanity treats one another, it is helpful to turn to Mister Rogers and Dr. Seuss. Ever since Tuesday evening, I’ve been thinking of an elephant named Horton, who heard a small noise.

“Mr. Mayor! Mr. Mayor!” Horton called. “Mr. Mayor! You’ve got to prove now that you really are there! So call a big meeting. Get everyone out. Make every Who holler! Make every Who shout! Make every Who scream! If you don’t, every Who is going to end up in a beezle-nut stew!”

And, down on the dust speck, the scared little mayor quickly called a big meeting in Who-ville Town Square. And his people cried loudly. They cried out in fear:

“We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!”

“Because a person’s a person, no matter how small.” We will remember.

Here is the feature article in Project Q:

LGBTQ Atlanta honors victims of anti-trans violence at annual vigil

dsc_5014__large6477986554222300399.jpg

Members of Pilgrimage United Church of Christ attend Atlanta’s Transgender Day of Remembrance observance at the Philip Rush Center, November 20, 2018 (Photo by Russ Youngblood)

 

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
post This is a place for peaceful contemplation inspired by story. What is spiritual mindfulness? For me, it is remembering to feed my spirit. This blog is a spiritual practice~~storying the soul, if you will. Most sites I find on either one of these topics focuses on meditative and wellness practices. Maybe that’s what you are expecting here. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised as instead you find a narrative approach to exploring spirituality, mindful of the everyday. That’s what I do–I write. For almost two decades I dedicated my time and energies (a lot of mental energy, i.e. worry) to academic writing. Here’s how I did it: I would write my narrative essays about place, religion, gender, sexuality, white privilege, etc., and then cite the requisite sources (that’s the academic part). But a funny thing kept happening. People would approach me after a panel presentation and say, “You know, you really ought to write a book with just your stories.” Which is exactly what I wanted to be doing. The problem is, I am an academic; thus, the academic writing.  This is a period of discernment and transformation in my life. Of course, that’s part of what you’ll find here too. I started to seminary and had to make some life choices. One was to step back from academic writing and do the kind of writing I really do enjoy–and that’s what you are reading now. I invite you to come along on my journey as I nourish my own spirit through story telling, being mindful of every, every minute, as Emily in Our Town would say. It is my hope that my stories offer you nourishment of some kind too.  The writing here comes from observations that dawn on me as I go about living life with as much intentionality as I can muster. That’s the mindfulness part. What makes it spiritual? Well, that’s the part of me where the words come from—the part that hopes to connect us to, as Paul Tillich would put it, the ground of our being. One.

On (Not) Minding Mortality

Yesterday I was reminded by two different folks of my blog, which is the first item put on hold when life gets really busy. Blog writing–reflective essays, really–is my favorite kind of writing, and I always mean to do better about not neglecting it. If I could do this for a living, I believe I would. So here’s something for today.

When I opened the page to start an entry, I found the following two paragraphs that I had begun last year. Let me tell you, I was in a really different place then than I am now, so it is not the same entry I would do today. Still, as I read it, I thought it was important to show the contrast and reflect on that for a minute. The original title was Minding Mortality. I felt like that needed to change too, so I changed it slightly as you can see.

One unexpected realization of practicing mindfulness has been that I am more mindful now of my own mortality. That’s probably due to my coming to the practice at this particular age; I’m fifty-five. I used to tell people that weight, not age, was my worrisome number. There have seldom been days in my life when I did not think about how much I weigh. Still do. I am happy to report that with the discernment that has come with getting older–and with having a generous life-partner–I now have a more peace-full relationship with my body. I have healthier reasons for wanting there to be less of me. But, age. I didn’t mind turning 50; in fact, I was proud that I didn’t mind. I was traveling, meeting people, enjoying life. That year I had an extended episode of cognitive dissonance–a mid-life crisis, if you will–about the meaning of life. Not just “the meaning of life,” but the meaning of my life. That is why the title of this blog is so important to me. It indicates a moment at the crossroads when focused, deliberate thinking was imperative. I remember distinctly the day when I took a different path that led to here. I didn’t know then that it had to do with thinking about mortality, but I see now that it does. If I had been content that my life had been meaningfully well spent, the dissonance would have been a lot less jarring.

Three years later, at fifty-three, I began grappling with the awareness of not having as many years left as I have lived. I started expressing my consciousness of it in small ways at first~making joking references to being put in a nursing home by my kids as my parents had done. Confirming my beneficiaries. Then one day I told Sarah that I would really like to get a diy project done so that I could enjoy it before I was dead. And it wasn’t a figure of speech

So that was last year. Since then, some imbalances have righted themselves after a good deal of grieving, and I had a bit of re-adjusting to life to do. Once again, I felt like I was emerging from a cocoon to a new day of opportunity that beamed the question, Who do you want to be? Except this time, the question was not out there alone in the universe for me to orchestrate a response to it. The question that settled on me like a warm sweater is, Who does God want me to be? I gotta tell you–when a question like this is put in the way it was put to me–well, I commenced to find the answer. Trust me, I’ll work through more of it here; the way the path opened up is, at least to me, fascinating–sometimes a little scary.

What is a good ending for the post from a year ago? As with most things, age and one’s location on the continuum of birth-to-death depends on how you frame it. And for me, it’s the difference between the two questions, above. Lived for myself, each day, each week, each month would be “one less.” On the other hand, resting–existing, thriving, living–in what Marcus Borg might call the more-ness of God illuminates the moreness of life.

For Tracy. Remember:
Marty Robbins The Master’s Call

Dear God, Let Me Be Mindful, and Hurry Up!

I don’t blog as much as I would like, so when I return to this site, I read the last post I’ve written. I did that today and thought it wasn’t half bad. I remember writing it, I had intended it to mark the beginning of my commitment toward mindfulness.  That was April; this is January. I feel like I’ve failed at it miserably. I get anxious and angry. I get dejected and forget to meditate. I don’t follow through well on activities, such as this one, that are good for me and make me happy.

One of the tenets of mindfulness training is that practicing is succeeding. There is no failure, and so you should be gentle with yourself, compassionate to yourself, when you don’t meet your own expectation. That’s a hard one for me. In a weird way, when I’m disappointed in myself, rather than letting negative thoughts go and moving on, I run the script of–whatever it is–an argument, an embarrassing moment, a disappointment of some sort, over and over in my head. I keep myself in my low place, allow myself to return to it when I get busy doing something else. It is as though by punishing myself like this I am taking an action on whatever the matter is. That thinking is dangerously deceptive for me. So I get the importance of mindfulness. Today is a day of self-compassion as I turn back to it.

At Christmas, Sarah gave me mindfulness: a journal (Price, 2016). You don’t write enough, she said. I replied, yeah, I resolve to be more productive this year (Not exactly lying, but not exactly resolved)! That’s not what I meant. You don’t write enough and you like it, she said. I realize it’s true; I like this kind of writing, reflective essays. I do not like sterile, intellectual-overlaid academic writing–and this kind is not that kind. So I think it is a good idea to every so often take a prompt from the journal and write my reflection here. That way I’m writing and practicing mindfulness. The writing is the practice, and I like the thought of that.

Prompt: What is your intention for this journal? Why are you interested in practicing mindfulness? Between this post and the previous one, I’ve shown why I’ve turned to mindfulness, my hope for what I can accomplish. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches the heart of the Buddha: The wave does not have to die to become water. When I consider these two prompts, my mind turns to water, so to speak. The thought of engaging with myself via this journal feels like putting my hands in a running creek and feeling the water run through and past my outstretched fingers. I can’t think of a more peaceful image, and for the moment, I am the water.

God Laughs, or Fun with Bell’s Palsy

You make your plans, and God laughs. That’s what happened to me over the weekend. Let me go back, though, and start with discovering the Atlanta Freedom Bands, which I wrote about here in November 2014. I recollected how finding the band made me realize how much I had missed making music, marching in parades, performing in concerts. How after more than 30 years, finding the AFB was like discovering a new, yet long lost treasure. Last year, I marched my first season of parades in various Atlanta community festivals. It was wondrous. And at Christmas, I performed in my first concert playing French Horn in 35 years. Last Saturday morning, I marched mellophone with the AFB in the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day parade. Afterwards, members of the band had lunch and drinks and fellowship at a local restaurant, which is the custom with this group.

Saturday night, kept waking up with what felt like a neck cramp. When I woke up early Sunday my speech was slurred, which I chalk up to needing a little more sleep, so I went back to bed. When I woke up again, I couldn’t blink my left eye. I ended up Sunday at the emergency room in Marietta. After they have ruled out a stroke, which was probably the best news I have ever received in my life, they told me I had a textbook case of Bell’s palsy. After a lot of googling I found out that it’s caused by virus, kind of like shingles. Likely because I had the flu, and that virus was in my system, it ended up attacking my facial nerve, causing it to be droopy and paralyzed. Like shingles, it was likely triggered by stress. In addition to facial paralysis–a word, like biopsy, fills me with terror–I have heightened ear sensitivity in my left ear, so loud noises, including my own sneezing, amplify like I’m standing in front of a Bose speaker. By all accounts, I will (should?) regain use of my facial muscles. Most well-wishers report success stories. It is totally unrelated to a stroke, and contracting it one time does not mean I will get it again. Those are the things I know. The worst part is that I can’t blink, so my eye gets dry and irritated. And that can lead to all kinds of trouble. I have to keep eye drops in it and wear a patch. Having only one eye affects depth perception and means I can’t drive. I can’t whistle or smile or buzz my lips. And buzzing one’s lips is essential to playing a horn.

Even though I realize I am very blessed in that this could’ve been so much worse, I’m still having to learn to deal with it. There are lots of adjustments I’m having to make pretty quickly. I’m learning how to have meals with straws and napkins. I’m learning how to turn my head in order to see better with an eyepatch. I’m learning to enunciate words using one side of my mouth. I’m learning how to encounter other people whose first response is to look away from me. I tried to go to the office yesterday, and by the end of the day I was exhausted from having to compensate physically in order to get from point A to point B, or participate in meetings. Talking and looking took a lot of energy that I had taken for granted. Part of the dealing with is going through my own stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Sunday and Monday I was in denial. I jokingly made a list with Sarah of one eyed characters for costume parties. We go back and forth with one-eyed jokes. In case you didn’t know, there are many one-eyed one liners. Believing the doctors that taking the meds would speed up recovery by months, I thought, Well if I can’t play horn, I’ll just break out the old flute and play that! I tried for half an hour to form the embrasure to blow air across the mouthpiece.  I waited to blink at any minute. I planned to go to choir. Tuesday night begin my descent into anger. I kept a dinner engagement with some visitors to campus, old friends from my curriculum world. When I entered the restaurant, Marlows Tavern, which I had been to so many times over the past few years, the hostess looked at me and then looked away. Same thing happened when the waitress came to take my drink order. I realize now that I do the same thing automatically–probably most of us do.  The next day, I mentioned choir to Sarah, who slowly turned and looked at me and said, Honey, you’re not going to choir. When I looked back at her in one-eyed disbelief, she started singing a little bit of the Hallelujah Chorus, which we’ve been working on for a month. I thought my left ear would blow out. No, I wasn’t going to choir. When she dropped me at the office,  just walking from one building to the next took all my energy to keep my eye covered so it would not dry out. I had two meetings where it was very important that I be able to speak, and that was extra energy. My colleagues, wonderful people, tried very hard to look at me in a normal way–and for that I will forever be appreciative. Nevertheless, I feel different, I talk different, I look different. And that was psychological and emotional energy spent that I wasn’t used to spending.

I’ll let you know when I’ve moved from anger to bargaining. Till then, in order to work through some of that anger, in order that something generative and therapeutic might come from it, I decided to pick up the blog again. It’s always been my favorite, preferred mode of writing. Academic work is important, but it isn’t accessible, and it limits my flow of thinking since I have to measure my tone and phrasing as well as the thoughts themselves. Here, I can have a conversation, if only with myself. Plus, Sarah approves of it since it will help keep me out of trouble–like trying to do home-improvement projects with one eye that doesn’t need to get dust in it. Most important, this is all helping me put my life in perspective and put the parts of my life in priority. It isn’t an overnight revelation, but I realize that stress is counterproductive and can be harmful. I reaffirm that life is always already about the people in it. That being present and being mindful is living. I am intentionally choosing hope and happiness. Hope and happiness are not default properties, and being intentional about them makes a difference. As I think about it, coming to this place is a kind of bargaining. I will trade impatience for writing, frustration for processing, sight for insight.

Band friends at Sr. Patron’s
Mellophone

 

A mello-photo bomb

Finding Free: The Atlanta Freedom Bands and Coming Full Circle

When I was in fifth grade at Littleville Elementary School, something magical happened. One day, our teacher announced that the band teacher from the nearby high school would be coming to Littleville to talk to kids and their parents about joining the band. It was 1973, and resources for extra-curricular activities–heck, resources for curricular activities–were limited. I remember in previous years, our musical exposure at school had been the on the rare occasions when our teachers had brought out a box with mostly percussion instruments and let us play with them, mostly trying to keep time while a record was playing. This was different. This was band. I could hardly wait for the meeting. When the evening came, the band director, Mr. Wright, brought a variety of instruments so that we could try them out and, with his advise make our selection. I realize looking back that, of course, he wanted a well rounded group of instruments, which is probably why I became a flute player. From that point on, I was in love.

I went to high school in a football town, and a football town doesn’t scrimp on its band. We were the Marching 100. I remember the day I was issued my uniform. I remember band camp and big, chartered band buses, chocolate sales and Homecoming parades. I can still remember how to play The Horse–if you have ever marched, you know The Horse. I remember our signature parade song–a marching mix of China Grove and Smoke on the Water. I still remember–and feel–lining up on the sideline for the halftime show, and I can feel again what it felt like then standing on the field, horn up, knees slightly bent, leaning back to hold the last note until the crowd stood and cheered. And they did. Every time.

I quit the band just before my senior year for a very, very bad reason. It’s a story for another time, because this one is about joy. But I must say–for the rest of it to make sense–that over the next thirty years I had recurring dreams about being back. Sometimes, they would let me join them again for just one performance. Sometimes, in my dream, it was entirely acceptable for an alum to join up years later. Whatever the scenario, I slept happy. Then woke. It was not unlike dreaming of someone who has passed then waking to sadness when you realize it was only a dream.

So  when I say how happy I am to find the Atlanta Freedom Bands and to sign up to march with them, you get some idea of how much it means to me. I’ll write more about it later no doubt, but this post was prompted by a conversation I had with my new band friend Mitchell. He  mentioned that during the recruitment drive at Pride this year, one new member was telling him that finding the AFB was like coming home again–a feeling not unlike ones I have been having. I bet I’m not the only one, either, or that new fellow. I bet a lot of band members feel like this is both a musical and community home. I bet a lot of us thought we might not ever have that kind of home again. Of course it’s also a helluva fun group that throws a mean party. Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I know the “Freedom” in Atlanta Freedom Bands has rich, multiple meanings, but certainly for me–and I bet for others–it is a home place that sets me free. I am awfully glad they have taken me in.

Spiritual Audacity and Radical Amazement: Rabbi Heschel and Prayer

Spiritual Audacity and Radical Amazement
Last week I discovered a document I never knew existed: the manifesto signed by 80 Protestant ministers in Atlanta in November 1957 in response to President Eisenhower’s sending federal troops into Little Rock to allow Black children to go to schools in their own neighborhoods (See  http://rccapilgrims.ning.com/profiles/blogs/80-atlanta-pastors-sign). Later in the week, and completely coincidentally, I began reading the work of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, whose name kept appearing in my research on curriculum and ethics. I’m not talking about a few citations. I mean every time, his well-placed words were used by non-theological scholars to knock their points out of the ballpark. Sometimes God knocks me over the head with stuff.
Rabbi Heschel was born in Poland in 1907, to an Orthodox Jewish family. He studied philosophy at the University of Berlin while also studying for rabbinic ordination. When the Nazis took over, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and after a great deal of struggle, he came to the U.S. in 1940. After several years he ended up at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Although he escaped, his mother and three sisters were murdered by the Nazis. He never returned to Germany or Poland because, as he put it, “If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.” In the 1960s he worked side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King for civil rights and to stop the war in Vietnam. When they marched together in Selma, he said, I felt my legs were praying (Essential Writings, p. 36). On March 25, 1968, Dr. King gave a keynote address at Rabbi Heschel’s birthday celebration. Rabbi Heschel invited the King family to join his family for the Passover Seder later in the spring, but we know what happened. Reverend King was assassinated on April 4, just days before Passover. Rabbi Heschel spoke at his funeral and walked in the procession in Atlanta. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we could stop with his biography and consider his life as we stand in amazement. But for Rabbi Heschel, amazement was not sufficient for working toward justice in the world. He called for radical amazement, and to get there, he called for us to pray.
In September 1963 (the month and year I was born) he offered a prayer for Soviet Jews who were not being allowed to practice their religion or even study Hebrew freely. Many years later his daughter found the unpublished prayer on a scrap of paper in his files. It includes these words: Prayer has meaning: the beginning of commitment, the starting point of personal involvement (EW, p. 81). The times, he said, call for radical action (EW, p. 74). In protest to American involvement in Vietnam he wrote, Some are guilty; all are responsible. Prayer is our greatest privilege. Prayer…is radical commitment, a dangerous involvement in the life of God (EW, p. 85). Prayer is radical and it is dangerous. This makes me want to pray, and I need to learn how to pray radically and dangerously. The times still call for radical action. The times call for prayer.
Last month an old friend from high school asked me about prayer, and I confessed to her that I had trouble praying. She replied, Well, isn’t that a problem, since you’re in seminary and all? Uh, yeah, it is. I’d say the words, and try to reach up to God with them, but it felt more rote—like a wish list. Another friend once wrote that when he was a kid God was like Santa Claus. I longed for my prayers to have depth—beyond thank you and please—beyond Santa. I wanted to draw nigh unto God (James 4:8). Rabbi Heschel knew the connection between prayer and justice, and I am grateful that he took the time to explain it to us. I think I’m getting it now.
In his book The Insecurity of Freedom, published in 1966, he wrote about prayer. He begins with the premise of God’s immediate and personal concern for the world and us. He is eminently quotable, and I will cite from him liberally by compiling a kind of Letterman Top Ten List of Rabbi Heschel’s “How To” Guide to Prayer.
10. Prayer is more than a cry for the mercy of God. It is more than a spiritual improvisation. Prayer is a condensation of the soul.
9. For prayer to live in humans, humans must live in prayer.
8. You cannot analyze the act of prayer while praying. To worship God means to forget the self, and extremely difficult, though possible, act.
7. I am not ready to accept [the idea of prayer] as a dialogue. Who are we to enter a dialogue with God? The better metaphor would be to describe prayer as an act of immersion…
6. Prayer is a moment when humility is a reality. Humility is not a virtue. Humility is truth. Everything else is an illusion.
5. [Prayer] begins with praise because praise is the prerequisite and essence of prayer. To praise means to make God present, to make present not only God’s power and splendor but also God’s mercy. God’s mercy and God’s power are one.
4. How does a human become a person, an “I”? By becoming a thought of God. This is the goal of the pious human: to become worthy to be remembered by God.
3. Thus the purpose of prayer is to be brought to God’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by God….What we long for [in prayer] is not to know God but to be known by God….
2. [Prayer] is the moment of a person in anguish forgetting his anguish and thinking of God and God’s mercy. That is prayer.
And the number one on Rabbi Heschel’s “How To” Guide to Prayer:
1. The way to prayer leads to acts of wonder and radical amazement.
One thing I notice about Rabbi Heschel, he used the word radicala lot throughout his writing. The word has several meanings. Although we usually think of it as meaning extreme, it also means fundamental and existing inherently in a thing or person. Radical action, radical amazement, and radical commitment—those “doing somethings” to which he referred, are fundamental to us as humans. They exist in us, and to get to them, we ask to be known by God. We pray.

Abraham Joshua Heschel Essential Writings (2013). Susannah Heschel, Ed. Modern Spiritual Masters Series. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
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