Category: intimacy

2016: Communal Grief and its Lesson

In addition to the difficult personal losses we’ve sustained as a parish this year, public figures keep dying: actors, artists, musicians. People whose lives were creative offerings; they keep dying. This isn’t new: people die; we know to expect that. But it seems, to many of us, that it’s happening more right now. More frequently, more quickly, on a grander scale.

In social media and elsewhere, there’s a sense that 2016 is to blame for these deaths. It’s this year – we seem to be saying – which has, let’s face it, been a difficult one. Syria, Russia, the destructive violence of a divisive election cycle, and now this sense that amidst so much hardship, 2016 has robbed us of some of our favorites. We are hurt. We are indignant.

But this communal sense of grief is intriguing. It isn’t just that, for example, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher, and Leonard Cohen died. Instead, the sense is that we lost them. It’s about us; that’s what’s different right now. Collectively, these losses feel like ours. We are weathering them together. In the story we’re telling, we occupy the position of the bereaved. Not as family members – nor even as individuals – but as a nation. We; me and you; us.

Witnessing this public reaction has brought to mind another time when loss felt communal: when it seemed to reach across class and race divisions and political divides. Most of us can recall that in the wake of 9/11, there was a strong sense of bearing so much death collectively. Even as we differed in our beliefs about how to move forward, we came willingly together to carry the pain. Few among us actually knew victims that day and yet: we had lost them, and along with them some sense of who we were.

A field of scholarship emerged in the decade following September 11th in which researchers considered that day and its aftermath through psychological, historical, sociological, and literary lenses. Theorists wrote about our collective grief, and a picture began to emerge of how it functioned. The sense was that our sorrow had much to teach about pre-9/11 culture. That the relief we found in collective mourning revealed a need to engage with those emotions in our own lives. Fear of death and resistance to grief are dominant norms in contemporary American society. For this reason, we as a nation struggle to allow ourselves sufficient space for the work of grief. We aren’t good at it. Considered in light of this cultural weakness, the atrocities of 9/11 offered space for depths of mourning that we, as a culture, otherwise avoided. We were already grief-stricken, the theory goes. But planes flying into buildings – the shock of it, the horror, the staggering death count – served as an invitation to mourn rigorously. To do so publicly. To do so in communion with one another. We could righteously lament all that wasted life, and as we did, we could perhaps yield more fully to our own unacknowledged distress.

It feels worthwhile to consider our collective reaction to the various deaths of this year through a similar lens. If we accept that for most of us, this particular grief is less about the public figures we’ve lost and more about our sense of having lost them, we gain access to insights about our current state as a nation. So too, if we take space to consider our scapegoating of 2016 as the reason we have had to endure these public losses, we might come to understand with more depth what this year has cost us.

Here’s what I’ve witnessed, and perhaps you’ve noticed it too. Public figures for whom we feel affection seem to be dying suddenly, and friends, families, and communities are commiserating with one another about the sadness and injustice of those losses. We’re sharing with those around us a sense of affront: coming together with humor, anger, and sadness. Thus I argue that this year, public loss is serving a profoundly important function: it is granting communion. This is so because when we see these emotions, we recognize humanity. We can’t not. Our grief makes us human. It helps us see ourselves in one another. It helps us look with kindness upon those around us in a way that we haven’t been doing enough of this year. And we’re leaning in to that grief, I think, for precisely this reason: we need to see one another; we crave it.

2016 was divisive. It saw unfold a polarity that has dangerous historical antecedents. In the U.S. alone, 2016 bore witness to threats and actualized violence against marginalized groups of citizens. It bore witness to anger, fear, and hatred. And perhaps most frighteningly, it revealed a widespread and startling resistance to the hard work of real listening. It gave rise to a destructive and ever-deepening sense that we as a nation are an “us” and a “them.” But however painful this is to face: anger, fear, divisiveness, and refusal to listen aren’t a product of this particular year. Instead, those reactions are a product of us.

This piece too is familiar. In the wake of September 11th, 2001 – in addition to uniting us with one another in sorrow – collective grief led us to search for someone to blame. In part as a result of that search, we retaliated against hidden terror cells in Afghanistan. Whatever your sense of the political necessity of the bombs we dropped, few would argue that the killing of Afghani citizens brought about collective healing. Facing that lesson, we would do well to acknowledge that as painful as 2016 has been, 2017 will not heal us in any substantive way. This is true, again, for the reality articulated above: anger, fear, divisiveness, and a refusal to listen are a product of us, not this year. We will only be free of those realities when we refuse to perpetuate them.

With this in mind, I want to suggest that as we welcome 2017, we do so with a sense of having acknowledged our collective sins of 2016: foremost our willingness to allow our brothers and sisters to be defined by a short list of political associations and perceived as less human whenever that short list differed from ours. I want to suggest that we recognize in our cathartic sense of collective grief an indication that some of what this year has cost us is the ability to see ourselves as one in Christ: to understand ourselves as in communion. And I want to urge us to see in our reaction to public loss an immense and unmet need for connection. To meet that need in other, more intimate ways. To reach out, in this new year, across the divides we’ve let define us; to begin again the work of listening and seeing to which Christ calls us.

Paul tells the Ephesians, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Public figures need not die for us to know ourselves to be one dwelling place for God: to understand with gratitude that which joins us together as one holy temple in spite of our differences. Enormous as our current cultural divisions truly are – and critical as it is that we commit ourselves to the work of addressing them – our shared grief reveals that part of our suffering comes from our willingness to give in to those divisions. It is worth considering what – of ourselves, of our culture – might begin to change if instead we “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” by seeing one another as members of God’s household; by listening; by committing ourselves to kindness. We may well discover that such work lends itself to the political aims we are otherwise finding frustratingly unmet.

May this new year of our Lord bring you healing, comfort, and communion. May you enjoy one another with the freedom and unguarded pleasure of our creator God. And may a collective desire to meet one another in full recognition of our shared humanity heal us and our wounded nation, showing us a worthy path forward.

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scripture, creation, & calm

Last week – with dozens of volunteers and nearly a hundred Kalamazoo-area kids – we held our annual Bronson Park Vacation Bible School. It was an intense and exuberant week, marked overall by much singing, shouting, and joyful noise.

But one session each day – which I was inspired to create during last year’s VBS – sought to offer kids some insight into what to do with all that energy: how to move from enthusiasm to commitment to our scriptures; from excitement to comprehension of the Word; from creative energy to creation itself.

Each day – in groups of twenty – kids entered a small space replete with rich textiles, lamps for light, a small altar, prayer mats, and candles. Each day, I greeted them at the door, whispering hello and encouraging them to greet one another in whispered tones as well. They seemed to understand instantly that the space was different. In that room, they were remarkably still. It wasn’t what they expected to encounter at Vacation Bible School, and so they were watchful, full of curiosity and wonder.

Upon entering, they were invited to find a prayer mat and draw awareness to their breath. I was startled by how well they responded to the work of intentional breathing. Here are the five particular exercises we did to prepare our bodies and minds for each day’s Bible chapters. I encourage you to try them: for yourself or with your kids. They were wonderful for helping us receive the Word, but they would work well, too, in a myriad of other circumstances.

  1. Flower Breathing: Breathe in, imagining you’re smelling your favorite flower. Breathe out, imagining you’re blowing out birthday candles. Repeat slowly, and at least ten times. This technique will help you engage your imagination, become aware of your breath, and calm and awaken your body.
  2. Fire Breath: Interlace your fingers underneath your chin. Inhale and lift the elbows up to frame your face. Exhale, lifting your head up and making a whispered “hah” sound toward the sky, like a dragon breathing fire. At the same time, lower your elbows back down to meet at the bottom again by the end of the “hah” exhale. Do so slowly, and at least ten times. This technique builds strength and heat within, making it a good energizer. It also helps us feel brave when we might be nervous.
  3. Feather Dancing: Hold a feather (a peacock feather, if possible!) two to three inches in front of your mouth and exhale completely, seeing how long you can make it dance. Watch the feather carefully as it moves. Then breathe in slowly to the count of four, and hold your breath to the count of two. Then breathe out again, seeing how long you can push the air out of your lungs, how long you can make the feather dance. Repeat at least ten times. Notice how this feels. Notice any differences in your body or your thoughts.
  4. Sound & Attention: This exercise is particularly helpful for grounding you in the present moment. It is of use when your thoughts carry you into the past or the future. Begin by lying down comfortably with your hands at your sides and your eyes closed. Draw your attention to your breathing: simply notice as your breath enters and leaves your body. You can also place your hands on your soft, breathing belly, feeling it rise and fall. Do this for at least five breath cycles (five inhales and exhales). Then, when you feel ready, create or have someone else in the room create a sound that resonates. This could be a piano key, a meditation chime, a singing bowl, a rain stick, or another sound that will resonate and eventually evanesce. When you hear the sound, focus on it as it gets softer and softer. When you no longer hear the sound, move your hands from your sides to your heart, as if in prayer. Return to five breathing cycles. Repeat this a couple of times.
  5. Weather Report: First, sit up tall and do some breathing. Try one of the approaches above, or simply breathe in for four counts, hold for two, and breathe out slowly. Repeat for at least five cycles. Then close your eyes and ask your body what your weather is. What weather best describes your feelings at this moment? Do you feel sunny, rainy, stormy, calm, windy, like a tsunami? This exercise helps us to remember that just as we can’t change the weather outside, and the weather is not our planet, we can’t change our emotions either, and those emotions aren’t us.

Having finished the day’s breath work, students were handed their art notebooks, in which they created art all week – being artists in God’s image – while listening to each day’s scriptural reading.

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  1. The first day, when the theme was hope, kids drew their understanding of light while listening to Isaiah 9:2-7. Their depictions of light were stunning: some offered it coming in through windows; others drew candles; still others created bright, vibrant skies.
  2. On Tuesday, the theme was courage, and they were asked to draw something they wanted to do but were afraid to try. I was startled by how easy it was for nearly all of them to bring to mind some current fear: jumping off the swing like their older sister; taking the training wheels off their bike; holding their breath and going under water; climbing some structure at the playground. They drew while I read Matthew 14:22-32, in which Jesus commands Peter to walk across the water towards him, which Peter can do it until he remembers his fear, forgets to trust, and begins to sink. Jesus, of course, lifts him up again.
  3. On Wednesday, the reading was the Beatitudes; the theme was direction; and kids drew their own imagined door to God: a door only they would recognize. These were especially moving: some were enormous while others were tiny passageways. Some were full of color, others just space and light.
  4. On Thursday the theme was love. The reading was the resurrection according to Luke, and they created images of themselves offering a small act of love or kindness towards someone in their lives. What was amazing about these was how much they smiled while they drew.
  5. On Friday, the theme was power; the reading was Acts 1; and kids drew one moment of beautiful creation that they had been privileged to witness. They were incredibly precise about these: I saw a small red flower that no one else noticed. There was a moon in the sky even though it was morning. I wanted a baby brother for so long and then I got to hold him. 

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Each day, when their creations were finished, we talked through what they had felt called to draw, and why. Then, together, they would create a prayer that related to the reading and images. For hope, one group wrote: Dear God, we hope for happy children. And we thank you. Amen. For courage, another wrote: Dear Jesus, were you ever scared? We have been scared. Please give us courage. Amen. For direction, a third wrote God, please help us find the door to your house. Amen.

Given the children’s remarkably open, calm, present experience of this process, we will definitely incorporate mindfulness in other aspects of our formation offerings, including our upcoming Music Camp. And if you explore any of these techniques as a part of your spiritual formation at home, please let us know how it goes. Watching nearly a hundred children engage scripture both contemplatively and creatively was well worth the effort.

“love’s risen body”

In the wake of a powerfully intense Holy Week, I am drinking tea and indulging in rich, meandering conversations. I am letting myself rest. But even as I offer space for the exhaustion of Church Work During Holy Week, I sense the ways in which I have been fed, made new, brought a little closer to whole by the journey. Boundaries were surrendered, yet much was gained. I trust that those of you who made space to move through the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter) came away with this sense as well. And I write – for those present and not, familiar and not – to share a sense of the undertaking. Because whatever your faith – however tethered to or skeptical of Christian doctrine you are in this moment – the stories and mystery and magic and intimacy of the Triduum are an offering that could be of service to our intimacy-starved, vulnerability-resistant culture.

Maundy Thursday is when the church remembers the Last Supper. This includes Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, offering them and us a new mandate to “love one another” (John 13:34). The liturgy ends with the stripping of the sanctuary, which reminds us of the empty cell into which Jesus is put for the night; enacts the stark reality of Good Friday; portrays the barrenness we fear in death; performs a kind of letting go; and reminds us that the Body of Christ was stripped. And yet here’s what most startles: whole communities come together and wash each other’s feet. They stand in a sacred place, take off their socks, and gather. They kneel before one another: strangers, friends, acquaintances, clergy, staff, children, parents. And one by one, they take bare foot in hand and cup water in palm. Whether you’re washing or being washed, it is a strange and vulnerable moment. It is awkward and humbling. We expose feet. We allow that covered part of ourselves to be held by another, to be loved. It takes surrender. And it changes us.  

This year, our deacon preached about mandates: his own to the parents of his pediatric patients, and Jesus’s to us. He said: mandates are bossy, but sometimes they’re right. Sometimes it’s right to tell a parent she should stay with her child. Sometimes it’s right to tell us to love. Sometimes it’s right to tell one another what to do. And so – with the Ubi Caritas filling the space around us – I washed a parishioner’s feet. And at first I felt all the usual insecurities: I’m doing this wrong. I’m not getting it right. You know these voices, right? Then I remembered the deacon’s words about mandates and the love that Jesus calls us to in this story. And I thought that kneeling there – foot in one hand and water cupped in the other – I couldn’t fail at that. I couldn’t fail at loving. I kneeled down and loved the woman whose foot I held through the awkwardness and the boundaries I had to put down to do so. The mandate is that we love. And it sets us free because it means we get to let everything else go in deference. And in letting those old stories go – I’m doing this wrong. I’m not getting it right – I discovered new wells of love. For the woman whose feet I was washing. For myself. For God. And it isn’t that it stopped being awkward; it’s that the awkwardness made it possible to get to that discovery: the letting go of my own sense of failure and the taking up of Jesus’s trust in me. Trust that I can love as he loved. And then I did.

Good Friday commemorates Jesus’s suffering and death. The altar is bare, having been stripped at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. The same people who only the day before kneeled down before feet and water now read the story of Jesus’s arrest, indictment, and crucifixion. The words of the angry (fearful) crowd would resonate with anyone in the room who is discomforted by oppression, by history’s incessant grasping for power. In The Heart of Christianity, New Testament scholar Marcus Borg argues that:

this is the political meaning of Good Friday: it is the domination system’s ‘no’ to Jesus. This is also the political meaning of Easter: Easter is God’s ‘yes’ to Jesus and his vision, and God’s ‘no’ to the domination system….Thus the cross…indicts the domination systems of this world. Good Friday and Easter have a political meaning, even as they are also more than political. Indeed, it is striking how much of our religious language was, in the first century, theo-political language. It indicts the way domination systems built on power and wealth oppress the world.

Together, as we read aloud the words of the frightened, human, unconscious oppressors, we at once collectively own our complicity in the systems of oppression that live on in our day, and rend our clothes in mourning over (if we’re following Jesus’s mandate) not just Christ’s unjust death, but the countless unjust deaths of history, and the countless unjust deaths to come. The oppression we enact on Good Friday is timeless.  

Indeed, this Good Friday our priest moved us backwards from the story of the ruling party’s attempted destruction of Jesus to that of his birth, which this year we celebrated only three short months ago. And recalling that new baby in the face of his eventual persecution (re)made fully human the man on the cross. And here’s the magical part: feeling his humanity made all those lives lost to injustice – all those lives we manage to ignore – fully human as well. And the act of seeing those lives made us fully human in turn. In Precarious Life, American philosopher and theorist Judith Butler asks if there might be something:

gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence….If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another? [Because] to foreclose that vulnerability, to banish it, to make ourselves secure at the expense of every other human consideration is to eradicate one of the most important resources from which we must take our bearings and find our way.  

Though the idea of vulnerability as a critical and misunderstood resource is currently of interest to theorists – and was the basis for my doctoral dissertation – I have never before seen it played out in a community setting. I’ve seen it function in the theoretical and in the personal, but never in the communal. But when we placed flowers on the cross this Good Friday, we did so with mournful eyes open to much that it would be easier not to know: that these precarious human lives are sacred and worthy, and that our most devastating failure is letting ourselves forget that. And in that space, together, we didn’t forget. Even if just for awhile. And it is fascinating to wonder what would happen if we all stopped forgetting, all together. What that might yield, even if we only did it for a day.  

The Great Vigil of Easter is the church’s celebration of the resurrection. It’s when we’re granted the impossible grace to move through the suffering we looked squarely in the eye on Good Friday and into, to recall Borg’s words, “God’s ‘yes.'” Into Jesus’s forgiveness of his persecutors. Into an alternative to power-hunger and intimacy-avoidance and vulnerability-fear. Into an abandonment of the myth of sovereignty. Into the empty tomb. It’s when we’re offered the space to imagine what might come from our willingness to love as God loves. And in that way, it functions as radical cultural resistance.  

We are sold versions of life everyday: versions that are expensive; that cost us the ability to see one another; that teach us to long for power and wealth over grace and compassion. Barrett Lee, who preached at this year’s vigil, writes that in contemporary American culture:

[we] are inundated with a relentless onslaught of guarantees and certainties from advertising slogans, political campaigns, and religious ideologies. And each time one promise collapses under its own weight and proves itself to be a lie, another one is waiting to jump up and take its place. Each ideological idol promises to give us the world, if only we will bow down and worship its golden image. Faith, in this context, is the ability to question these promises, doubt these certainties, and refuse to bend the knee to anything less than the mystery of God’s own self.

Gathered together on this night – telling this sacred, mysterious story that has been handed down to us; having been reminded in the days before of Jesus’s mandate to love; having recalled our own tragic yet deeply human ability to ignore and even induce the suffering of others – we refuse the golden image. We bend down only to mystery and miracle. We remember that Christianity is not:   

preserved in unchangeable dogmas, but is passed down as a story told in poetry and prophecy, in water and oil and light, in bread and wine.

The stories and mystery and magic and intimacy of the Triduum are an offering that could be of service to our intimacy-starved, vulnerability-resistant culture. This is so because the Triduum is an invitation to embrace – even if only for three short days – our own precariousness, and that of others. To imagine what it is to live with the mandate of loving held high above all other demands. To look human cruelty squarely in the eye not as a way of vilifying ourselves and one another, but in an effort to understand. To see. To suffer alongside, and recognize, and uphold, and surrender, and love.  

On Easter morning, in the wake of all this, our priest offered these lines from the R.S. Thomas poem “The Answer”:

There have been times
when, after long on my knees
in a cold chancel, a stone has rolled
from my mind, and I have looked
in and seen the old questions lie
folded and in a place
by themselves, like the piled
graveclothes of love’s risen body.

The Triduum works this way, rolling away the artifices of death and power and violence – of destructive cultural conditioning and stagnant questions – and leaving us gathered, in community, around “the piled / graveclothes of love’s risen body.” And it is almost impossibly sweet to imagine what we, together, might go on to do in its wake.

 

hold you

The last couple of nights in my house – when we’ve finally gotten into pajamas, and brushed teeth, and read all the books – my almost two-year-old has asked me to climb into his tiny toddler bed so he can, in his words, “hold you.” He wants to hold me. After more than twenty-three months of holding him – at all hours of the day and night; in carriers and with just my arms; in response to calls for “uppies” and in the face of vehement protest – he wants to hold me.

Which to be clear is awkward. Those little bird arms stretching around both sides of my neck. My face right up against his. My body held tense so as not to put the whole weight of my torso onto his still impossibly tiny arm. Being held by a two-year-old is awkward. And yet it’s maybe the most clearly I’ve ever seen myself in him. Hold you, I have said to the world a thousand different ways, not so much minding the awkwardness. Hold you, we say to God’s world, to humanity, every day, though every day we fail to do so well. Hold you, we whisper, longing to gather ourselves around something much bigger than we are. Hold you, we whisper to God. And so when my son says hold you, I let him. And I sing quietly, my face an inch from his, until he finds sleep. It seems necessary not just to accept the awkward discomfort of this moment, but to grant that the awkward discomfort is central to the experience. The act of holding – be it literal or symbolic – is hard.

I thought of this yesterday when Fr. Randall preached about Lazarus’s sister Mary, and that glorious nard, and Jesus’s feet. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.* When he preached about how, among other things, that moment must have been so intimate to watch, too intimate for those not naturally at ease with intimacy. There must have been an instinct to look away. And maybe that instinct accounts for part of Judas’s judgement: Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?* And really maybe that discomfort accounts for Judas’s betrayal at large: it must have been hard for those who found comfort in first-century cultural boundaries not to sometimes look away from Jesus. Not to do whatever it took to be able to look away.

Often when I wonder what to fall back on in this work – and for that matter in parenthood, and for that matter in marriage – I think of the recurring theme in E.M. Forster’s novels: “Only Connect.” If forced to choose between two options, I want to choose connection. I fall short of this every day, but it’s worth striving for. And it has its downsides. I used to washed my car weekly. Now my car sort of looks like it’s being driven by a hoarder: toddler socks, measuring cups, ripped coloring pages. It’s been a long, long time since I got a full night’s sleep. I’m betting most parents reading this can relate. But yesterday I watched our parish kiddos recite Psalm 126, which they’ve been working on for weeks. And we wrapped up a parish-wide Lenten Study in which we endeavored to see as fully human those we might be inclined to dismiss. And we listened to a sermon about the intimacy of what was maybe the only worthy thing Mary could think to offer the man who gave her brother life again. And our parish kiddos finished the icons they’ve been creating this Lent: objects lovingly made to help them and us draw closer to God and those who’ve done God’s work. Connection, intimacy, all just there for the looking.

I’m thinking that we’re all way too busy. And that it’s hard to know what to prioritize. So it helps to remember Mary and that gesture of love because she could have made a thousand more practical choices, and instead she made one that Jesus understood. One that meant touching our Lord, anointing him, showing him her devotion. One that he saw not as extravagant but as holy: Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.* She wanted to hold him. And it was awkward, and impractical, and connective. And it was just right.

As we move towards Holy Week, maybe it will be of service to hold this image of Mary in our minds. To see in Judas – and in this election season, and in plenty of contemporary culture around us – where fear of intimacy leads. And to choose, when we can, not to look away. St. Luke’s parents: consider bringing your kiddos to the Maundy Thursday liturgy at 7pm that night. If enough of our little ones come, I can make a foot washing station just for them. And Fr. Randall will be on hand after to answer questions they might have about the powerful stripping of the sanctuary that closes that liturgy. Our Kids Do Good Friday Liturgy at 5:30pm the next night will offer a glimpse of Jesus’s death that is both age-appropriate and moving.

Let’s move into Easter fully ready to look. Fully ready to teach our young ones to look. Seeing the intimacy of both Jesus’s death and his resurrection. Being open to saying hold you to God and, when it is safe and right to do so, saying it to our brothers and sisters here on earth as well.

*  Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

Icons made by the children of St. Luke’s, Lent, 2016

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