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What We See

“April. You’ve gained a lot of weight.”

Several months ago, the stars aligned and I found myself stepping back into a house I hadn’t been to in years – the home of some dear, old friends, people who have known me for decades. I hadn’t seen them since the divorce.

I have been divorced for roughly five years now, and these years have been both the hardest and most generative years of my life. There have been significant stretches of time during these years when I have not been sure if I would come out the other side, or in what form. At times I haven’t been sure about my own goodness, or value; at times I haven’t been right more than I’ve been wrong; at times I haven’t always been able to recognize when I’ve been right; most of the time right and wrong have gone out the window. My ethics and values have all been put on the table to be re-evaluated; I’ve been starkly alone and I’ve also learned to really depend on other people; I’ve learned to find the strength that only comes out when you live in the truth; I’ve learned how powerless I am in the face of grief and loss and trauma.

And now I’m almost 40 and I am absolutely the best version of “me” that I’ve ever been. I have survived that shit, you know?

I couldn’t wait to be with these friends again, to show them how much more love I have in my heart now, how much braver I am, how much more gratitude I have life. And I couldn’t wait to see them, to see how they have grown and changed, to see what sparks their passion these days, to be in the presence of their hard-won wisdom.

But that was not what they saw. They saw the 50 pounds I’ve put on over these years, the gray hair that’s appeared around my temples, the beginnings of wrinkles around my eyes.

Today is the Christian feast of the Epiphany, a day that traditionally celebrates the Magi seeing and recognizing the newborn baby as the Christ. Here’s the excerpt from the Psalm (46) that jumped out to me today:

Come now and look upon the works of the LORD,
what awesome things he has done on earth.

It is he who makes war to cease in all the world;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,
and burns the shields with fire.

 

I think of Epiphany as this hidden season of light that comes between Christmas and Lent. It’s stuffed into the dark, cold and dismal days of January, arguably with NYC is at its worst (especially if it is snowy and icy), and we’re all a strange mix of resignation and determination thanks to the celebration of the New Year. Yet the church year insists on light, on knowing and recognizing the miraculous among us.

 

My friend was right when she said I had gained weight. I have. A lot. I’ve often wished it wasn’t the case and I’ve struggled with it immensely over the past few years in particular. What she saw was true. But she missed so many other things. She couldn’t see past the extra pounds. And she couldn’t see that I’ve come to accept that being thin again just might not be in the cards for me for a variety of very good reasons. And I’ve come to actually celebrate the fact that I eat pretty healthy and I am awesome at getting regular exercise and I actually enjoy that exercise and don’t treat it like a punishment that I have to endure for the crime of nourishing my body.

 

In short, I see fucking clearly now about all this body image nonsense, and one of my intentions for the new year is to continue to de-colonize my vision around what’s beautiful and what’s not. So this year? My intention is to get beyond this “acceptance” nonsense around my body and to learn how to just really, insanely LOVE this body I have, because it is a SURVIVOR and it is strong and it is soft and my son loves to hug me and my partner and I cuddle up so nicely together and my dog loves the comfort of my thigh to rest his little head on and I go up and down 4 flights of stairs multiple times a day to get in and out of my apartment without blinking an eye, my friends.

 

Also I can see well and hear well and I have an amazing immune system and have been gifted with a serious-illness-free life so far. I love riding my bike on the North County trail and walking the hills in Inwood Hill Park. And dancing! And stretching! And playing harp and banjo!

 

My friend missed all of this when all she saw was my weight. She saw bigger thighs and a belly and then – as we’ve all been trained – simply saw failure, weakness, loss. She saw a hard journey but missed all the gifts this journey has given me. And it’s really hard to explain that to someone who initially just sees the pudge – it’s hard to explain it without it sounding like excuses or denial. Because I’ve been that person, and I know that you really can’t hear anything else when you’re seeing life that way.

 

But I’m not that person anymore, and I am so not going to waste another minute of the precious time I have left mourning the fact that my body no longer conforms to some distorted, capitalistic and patriarchal vision for what beauty and value are. I know, deep in my heart, that every way that I’ve grown is worth so much more than that.

 

So, Epiphany. I’m still learning how to really see the miracle of my body and my journey in it, and the miracle of others bodies and abilities and their journeys, and I’m going to rely on the grace of the Spirit for the humility and openness to see the miraculous work of life and growth and the image of the Christ in all the places that our various cultures insist that we debase instead of celebrate.

Starting with the mirror.

 

Thanks be to God!

The Miracle of A River Otter

The darkest point of the year is when we start preparing for the sun.

This is the simple truth, embedded in many earth-based forms of spirituality and religion (which most modern world religion retain, at least in their practices.) It is when the earth seems frozen that we start to think about planting seeds; it is when light and warmth are scarce that we celebrate the light and warmth in our homes, our communities, our families, our spirits.

There have been years, a decade or more, in my life when I have felt the coming of winter darkness as a threat. I have entered the season with great trepidation, anti-depressants in hand, always feeling that the autumn was just a time of watching the life be drained from flora and fauna, watching a death descend that might just get me this year as well.

Lou, Luke and I spent a few days in Montreal right after Christmas, where it was not quite as cold as I expected but it was definitely darker. Night fell earlier and morning came slower. Driving along the border on the way there and back, the landscape was barren and icy.

And…. it was beautiful. Beautiful in a way I felt deep in my bones, the same way I remember the untouched snow in our back yard being beautiful when I was a child, the same way I have wanted to be able to see the beauty of winter again for many years but has not been within my reach.

Here’s the reading I’m looking at today. This is one of the readings for Epiphany, which comes on January 6th, from the 60th chapter of Isaiah.

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.

On our last day in Montreal we decided to drive out of the city to visit an outdoor “ecomuseum,” actually a sort of zoo for arctic animals who could not be returned to the wild for one reason or another. I typically hate zoos, honestly – it’s hard for me to see wild animals in cages – but this place seemed uniquely loving and caring. The animals were outside in large, protected spaces, being fed real food, feeling real snow and ice and wind.

And they were stunning. We could have stood and watched the caribou for hours, the river otters, the owls. Oh, the owl, that magical and mystical creature. And the arctic foxes and river otters, playful and snuggly and yet so… other.

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This place was mainly populated by young children and their families, which I recognized immediately: this was a Canadian version of the farm-zoos I used to take Luke to when he was that age, where we’d see cows and pigs and llamas and horses and peacocks. Little kids love animals. It’s like we are born with an innate love, respect and reverence for the creatures of the world. I will never forget the first time Luke saw a sheep. He was not quite two, and I was pushing him in a stroller around one of these places. When the sheep came up to the fence, Luke’s little friend got scared and started crying (respect! Big animals should scare us on some level at least.) When Luke saw the sheep, he started laughing. Hysterically laughing. He could not stop. It made me laugh too. I had never realized it, but yes, sheep are just inherently funny. This is how children help us all grow, by reminding us of these important truths that make life so much more joyful. What happens to people who emerge from childhood without that reverence and love for our fellow creatures on the earth? I found myself wondering this as we drove back to our hotel. It’s so clear to me that humans are born to love and care for the beings we share space with, yet people who rise to positions of power have often lost sight of that reverence – or perhaps have forgotten how to be reverent, forgotten that wildlife is not simply there for our consumption, not something that we can just enjoy and not make sacrifices to care for it.

We have “othered” the earth and the miraculous plant and animal life that exists with us, made ourselves separate from it in our minds, and now we make decisions like building leaky oil pipelines down fantastic wilderness, creating plastic junk that chokes the sea monsters, and dumping chemicals into the water and soil that poison us all.

If that’s not a “thick darkness” that covers the earth like Isaiah describes, I don’t know what is. A darkness that hides our connection to the miraculous diversity of life that surrounds us on this earth, our “island home” (h/t BCP). It’s a darkness that hides our own vulnerability from us and makes us believe that we can act without impunity or consequence on this planet. It’s a darkness that keeps us from seeing the simple miracle of an own moving its head back and forth, of the hilarity of river otters careening down slippery rocks, of the sheer presence of the caribou, those magnificent creatures.

It’s a darkness that keeps us from love. This is my prayer for the new year, for 2020 and beyond, and for this Epiphany season: that the “thick darkness” that keeps us trapped in an illusion of separateness clears away like smog being lifted from a cityscape; that we cease to bow to the gods of self, industrialization, independence and consumption; that we cease to live so faithlessly, so untrusting in the world and one another, so small-minded and unimaginative that the only way we seek to live is at the expense of other vulnerable, miraculous, and intrinsically valuable plant and animal life in the world.

 

Advent Day 24: The little guy who made the grocery store employees smile

Yesterday I went out to pick up a few things from the grocery store on my street. An older man at the store – I think it was the manager, a guy everyone calls “Primo” – was being handed a young boy, maybe 2 years old. As soon as the little boy walked over he started giggling and smiling in his lovely baby talk. Primo smiled, I smiled, all of the customers at the entrance smiled at this little boy and his contagious laughter.

As I walked through the aisles I heard several employees, as they were stocking shelves and sweeping floors, smiling and mentioning “el nino” (I can’t figure out how to get the ~ to show up over the n, lo siento.) When I turned my final corner of the store, there was the little guy again, being taken around by who I assume was his grandfather or great uncle or someone, smiling and being smiled at. It was like the presence of this little one had transformed the entire vibe of the store – a magical moment. But more than magic – the joy was palpable, and all emanating from the presence of this tiny 2-year-old boy who had no idea the effect he was having on everyone else.

Here’s the scripture that caught my eye today, this last day of Advent 2019:

From Psalm 46:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, 
the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her;
she shall not be overthrown; 
God shall help her at the break of day.

The nations make much ado, and the kingdoms are shaken; 
God has spoken, and the earth shall melt away.

So this is the final word from me in this Advent series. The power of a baby is the power of the Divine. The power that holds us together is the power that allows us to light up in the presence of newborn. The power of joy and connectedness often – or always – seems as though it will be ultimately overthrown, that it is ultimately weaker than the powers of violence, hate, and despair.

But the Christian message of Advent insists differently – that the weak and vulnerable power that a baby so effortlessly embodies is the power that holds up the cosmos. Let’s not be deceived otherwise – it is that vulnerability that will (if it does and if we allow it to) save us from ourselves.

Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas, friends. I haven’t decided yet how to continue this blog post-Advent – I’m enjoying it so much, but probably can’t commit to writing daily in the foreseeable future. Maybe once/week? Will think it over. As for now, time to bake some cookies and prepare the home for Christmas morning.

Advent Day 23: On the Edge of Eternity

I have two friends – one from middle school and one I’ve only gotten to know a bit this year – who have accidentally faced the natural elements this year, uncertain they would survive. They both survived, thanks be to God, and seem to both credit the intertwining of those great sacred forces: inner strength and random luck.

They are probably both, truth be told, still wrestling with the trauma of just barely making it. Which is appropriate.

And I find myself here, this 23rd of December, wrapping presents for the tree, thinking about them both and about how hearing their stories has impacted me in these past few days.

Here’s the scripture I’m holding today, from Psalm 62:

For God alone my soul in silence waits; 
truly, my hope is in him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation, 
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.
In God is my safety and my honor; 
God is my strong rock and my refuge.
Put your trust in him always, O people, 
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

These kinds of scriptures – the ones that seem so assured that there is some strong-guy “God” out there, fully apart from us, who doles out strength to us as needed (or not), who gives us safety (or not), who protects us from the forces aligned against us (or not) – have always kind of been my nemesis in the Bible.

I know that for some people these kinds of scriptures are empowering and reassuring. And, I should clarify: I think there probably have been and will be times in my life when they might provide some kind of comfort. (I’m remembering here the times I’ve sat at someone’s deathbed – that is exactly the time that these sorts of scriptures shine their brightest.)

So I guess I have two responses to this scripture, while thinking of my friends, today:

1.) The “power” and “safety” of God – that rock and refuge – often manifests in a quiet, inner strength that we don’t know we have access to until we absolutely need it. That’s the nature of this sacred strength, for better or for worse: it doesn’t knock on the door of your consciousness, telling you it’s there while you’re out and about in daily life. It doesn’t hang around in the corners of your spirit. It is completely invisible until it is completely necessary. Then you discover that there is this strength, this force, this… something that has always been with you that you never knew before. You can name it as you experience it: your own inner strength, the Spirit, the Universe, God, Zeus, Zool, no really, whatever it is, this experience and presence is at the heart of the world’s religious traditions. And when it shows itself, it changes you. It changes you into being more yourself.

2.) These kinds of scriptures, as I said, are at their best when when they are being read by or to people who are on their literal deathbed. But here’s the thing: we are all on our literal deathbed, every day, right here, right now. We are all dying. Each day could be our last. So, maybe these kinds of scriptures are really “at their best” when we aren’t denying that factual reality. Maybe these kinds of scriptures are meant to keep us alive, awake, aware that we are but a breath, that every moment of every day is a gift, and that the possibility of being changed by that deep and quiet inner Spirit is always being offered to us.

Thanks be to God.

And, now off to finish this wrapping. I’m listening to Saint-Seans Christmas Oratorio this morning, relishing the beauty and the memories of the many seasons I performed this, how about you?

Advent: Day 22

It is a rare night that I am not asleep by 10 pm and a rare morning I am not up by 6 am. I’m not sure how this happened to me. I think it had to do with having a kid but I know this doesn’t happen to everyone with a kid.

I know it has to do with experiencing trauma over the course of my life which makes my sleep always a challenge.

I know that it has to do with the fact that I learned to love mornings and the quiet and stillness in my brain in the early hours.

And I know it has to do with the fact that I lead a life that requires high energy – working full time at a church, teaching one day/week at a seminary, teaching online classes to people in prison, and being a primary parent for a 12-year old – that I have learned over the years that the best way to ensure that I can continue to do these things that I love is to not spend a lot of energy on other parts of my life, like scheduling and eating. So I sleep early and rise early, I eat oatmeal or yogurt every day for breakfast, soup or a salad almost every day for lunch. My bed time is non-negotiable. There are patterns and stabilities I’ve baked into my life that I don’t have to think about, and I feel like doing that affords me the mental and physical energy I need to do the work I do, which is both relationally and creatively draining at times.

I’m sure that a lot of you can relate, and have your own survival strategies for your particular ways in the world.

That said, there are also times that these strategies and plans just don’t work or they break down entirely. Sometimes that manifests in my body finally succumbing to whatever virus has been working its way in me.

That’s where I am now. Sitting on my beloved red chair, where I have been for most of the day, lacking the energy to do anything, even read scripture for today’s Advent blog.

But that’s ok. Sometimes waiting is active and its hard work. Other times, waiting is letting go and just resting.

 

Advent Day 21: Closet Pagan

A few years back I was sitting in the break room of NYU Langone Hospital with a colleague who was a rabbinical student (now, I’m happy to report, she is a full-fledged Rabbi – but at the time, she was still in school.)

She asked me, very plainly, what it was that I loved about Christianity, aside from the teachings of Jesus. It was such a perfectly genuine and open question, exactly the kind of place any real inter-religious dialogue should start. What did I love about the religious tradition that had developed around the teachings?

I hesitate for a moment and replied, “I love the pagan-ness of it.”

She looked surprised, as Jewish/Christian/Muslim traditions are not typically known to embrace the pagan strands that run through them. In fact, we’re more known for denying those strands and insisting that our religious traditions were a response to the excesses of “pagan” (I use the term very broadly) traditions.

”What do you mean?” she asked.

I could have answered with some theology around the incarnation of Christ – just as I could write about that now if I wasn’t in kind of a hurry and not quite awake enough to think it all through – but instead I just said, “well, look at Christmas. We still even have Christmas songs about the “Yuletide,” which is totally an ancient pagan holiday.”

I wasn’t connecting with any of the morning prayer readings today, and (full disclosure) I’m coming down with some kind of virus. So I let myself off the hook and decided to sit with one of the Canticles for today. Then I realized that today is that holy pagan day, the winter solstice. So that sealed the deal – and this is Canticle 12.

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, 
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.

Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew, 
all winds and fire and heat.

Winter and Summer, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, 
drops of dew and flakes of snow.

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O nights and days, 
O shining light and enfolding dark.

Storm clouds and thunderbolts, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

II The Earth and its Creatures

Let the earth glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills,
and all that grows upon the earth, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas, and streams, 
O whales and all that move in the waters.

All birds of the air, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O beasts of the wild, 
and all you flocks and herds.

O men and servants of the Lord, 

praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O spirits and souls of the righteous, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

You that are holy and humble of heart, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Back when I was in college, and had decided I was finished with the church and Christianity, one of the moments that brought me back was hearing a homily at a church (where I had a gig!) about the doctrine of Creation and the idea that the cosmos is infused with the “self” of the Creator the same way a piece of art is infused with the “self” of the artist. That every tree, every flower, every spider and ant and cell and atom and great burning star and human baby and giraffe and stray cat and cuttlefish and snowfall and grain of sand were not “just” made of some impersonal “matter,” not just “stuff, but they mattered,  they disclosed something of the Sacred Nature of this world and this cosmos.

It changed the world for me, and it changed me, because it changed how I saw everything.

It changed how I saw myself. That’s taken longer to manifest, but this year – about 20+ years later – I’m starting to see how my soul can “magnify the Lord,” too.

Thanks be to God!

Advent Day 20: Vocation and emptiness

I find myself, at this early hour on a Friday morning in December, tempted to fall into approaching these morning blurbs like sermons. For those of you who read these but do not ever find yourself in a pulpit, the difference might not be so obvious – it’s not obvious to me all the time, either, except in how I feel on the inside as I’m writing. So I almost made today’s reading from the Gospel, the story of the 3 workers with their talents. But I’m just too accustomed to approaching that text as a preacher and I don’t want to do that here.

I think if I could sum up the difference between preaching and blogging, for me, it’s that when I’m working on a sermon, I’m always thinking about how different people in the congregation might hear it (not necessarily real people, but thinking of all the different places people are at on Sunday mornings.) There is so much variety in most congregations that it takes some careful thought and intention.

But here my main audience is… well, me. I’m not thinking about being palatable or applicable to anyone here. I’m just writing what comes to mind and not worryIng about the rest. I write on my blog for fun and for my own spiritual development – I open it up for the internet to read because the best (and possible all real) spiritual growth happens in community.

With that in mind, here’s the excerpt I’m centered on this morning, from the book of Isaiah:

For as rain and snow fall from the heavens 
and return not again, but water the earth,

Bringing forth life and giving growth, 
seed for sowing and bread for eating,

So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; 
it will not return to me empty;

But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, 
and prosper in that for which I sent it.

So I’ve been raised in a theological tradition that asserts that God is and loves truth. Truth sets us free. Where I have experience truth as both the hardest to embrace and simultaneously the most freeing is around the beginning and end of life – birth and death. Often we so badly want to believe that we are deathless and infinite. That we have always been and always will be. That there is no real ending or beginning.

It’s possible. I have no idea what’s actually true about human finiteness, but as I said, I was raised in a strand of theology that teaches that true freedom comes from embracing even the most difficult truths. That instead of trying to drown out the fact that we are born and we die, we begin and we end, we find joy in embracing the truth that we are small, very limited in perception, unable to ever really see the “whole picture,” and, yes, finite. We all will end.

That might sound depressing, but I will be really honest here: when I am able to embrace all of that is when I feel the most free, the most grateful, the most hopeful.

This morning I am thinking about this in terms of my vocations as a musician, a writer, a pastor and a teacher. I have often jokingly referred to the work I do in the world as the least valuable – believe me, kids, majoring in music and religion is not the way to go if you’re looking for professional “success” as we usually understand it. I am almost 40 and I can honestly say that these past 2-3 years have been the first time in my life I have gotten to do meaningful work and had enough to comfortably live and in fact prosper (prosper meaning: start to sack money away for my kid’s college education.)

I have at times had one or the other – meaningful work or enough money – but never, until very recently, both. Mostly I’ve had meaningful work.

I’ve struggled against my vocation. I’ve tried many times to do something, anything else with my life – something that would come with a salary and benefits, something that would be easy and have a path charted out for me. But here’s the reality: I am actually really bad at most things that fall into those categories. So at one point I had to choose: am I going to do something in which I have talent, something God has clearly created me to do, and embrace the risk and the pitfalls of it? Or am I going to choose instead to not contribute all that much to the world by dedicating my life to doing things I am not very good at and don’t find joy in?

This was greatly complicated, for me, by the fact that it was hard for me to make the case to myself that my vocations actually did do some good in the world. You know? The world is burning, and I’m a f*cking poet? I play the stupid harp? I pray with people?

OMG, couldn’t God have given me some more useful gifts in the world? Something that could actually change things? Or hey, something where I could actually support my family?

But at some point, over many years, I had to embrace my finiteness in regards to my vocation. I had to trust, in some sense, that the words of Isaiah were true – that the Divine Energy of the cosmos that had brought me into being for these fleeting moments knew what they were doing. That that energy would not send me into the world, made the way I am, for no reason. I may not ever or always be able to see it, but God’s word never comes back empty. It’s a powerful thing – Take that risk to give yourself, your true self, to the world, and you will be a blessing here. In the most basic sense, this isn’t about playing harp or writing or pastoring or whatever it is you do. It’s simply about being actually and fully present to the other humans and beings around you, and actually being willing to take the risk to see them and let them see you.

I think about the multitudes – the majority, really – of the world who lack the privilege and access to do things like dedicate time and money to learning a musical instrument or writing poetry or doing whatever needs to be done to really live out and fulfill their vocation. The people who are born into circumstances that make even the development of empathy so hard or impossible. And it’s true: we are finite but we are also dreadfully powerful when it comes to squashing or annihilating the possibilities for our fellow humans. I don’t know what to make of that in the grand cosmic equation except to say that vocation is never an individualistic “I need to find myself” kind of thing. Our vocations come out in our communion with one another and our vocations need to be supported – and when we squash the vocation of someone else, we are also in some way limiting or withering away our own. We do not exist except in communion and community with one another – and this, too, is one of those difficult truths we can either run from and insist on living in denial, or we can learn to embrace it and find deeper freedom than we could have ever found on our own.

Thanks be to God.