Paying Attention with Rachel Held Evans

There has been a great deal already said and written to memorialize and honor the life of Rachel Held Evens, yet, for some reason, I feel compelled to add my voice. When word of her death came across my newsfeed, I was shocked. Such an untimely death at 37-years old and seemingly unexplainable causes even in the midst of such modern medical technology and treatment. Though I only knew RHE through her writing, I immediately felt a void, a loss, and a profound sense of grief in my soul even as I tried to wrap my brain around the fact of her death. My heart ached for her family, her husband, Dan, and their two small children who might not ever remember their mother.

Upon hearing of her death I immediately went to my bookshelf and pulled out Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, published in April 2015. I find it interesting that April 2015 also marked my leaving the church I loved. I have been a Christian and a member of an evangelical church since I was 13; however, on April 26, 2015, at age 64 I left the church. I had been a member of this particular church for almost 15 years. I was feeling unmoored. Full of questions and doubting the dogma and doctrine I had proclaimed for decades. I discovered Searching for Sunday and read it in December 2015. As I read I felt a kindred spirit with RHE. I was not alone in my questions, doubts, and leaving.

My Searching for Sunday is dog-eared, underlined and heavy with sticky notes. In rereading passages since RHE’s death I am, again, awed by the biblical knowledge, spiritual depth, and courageous, prophetic voice of this young woman. In my reading I was struck with her frequent exhortation—Pay attention!

With all the words that have already been said/written in the last week about Rachel Held Evans, I can think of no better way to honor her life and work than to share her own words: 

Rachel Held Evans
June 8, 1981 – May 4, 2019

The kingdom (of God) knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture. It advances not through power and might, but through acts of love and joy and peace, missions of mercy and kindness and humility.

“So, too the Spirit, inhaled and exhaled in a million quotidian ways, animates, revives, nourishes, sustains, speaks.  It is as near as the nose and as everywhere as the air, so pay attention.”   —page161

“ . . .the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s as invisible as your breath but as certain as your skin, so pay attention and don’t forget who you are.”         –page 163

“The Spirit is like a bird, . . . The Spirit is as common as a cooing pigeon and transcendent as a high-flying eagle.  So look up and sing back, catch the light of God in a diaphanous scrim of wing. Pay attention.”          –page 163

“The spirit is like a womb, from which the living are born again. We emerge—lashes still wet from the water, eyes unadjusted to the light—into a reanimated and freshly charged world. There are so many new things to see, so many gifts to give and receive, so many miracles to baffle and amaze, if only we pay attention, if only we let the Spirit surprise and God catch our breath.”       –page 164

“When the Spirit lives within you, any place can become a sanctuary. You just have to listen. You just have to pay attention.      –page 180

“And when we check our pride long enough to pay attention to the presence of the Spirit gusting across the globe, we catch glimpses of a God who defies our categories and expectations, a God who both inhabits and transcends our worship, art, theology, culture, experiences, and ideas.”              –page 184

“This is what’s most annoying and beautiful about the windy Spirit and why we so often miss it. It has this habit of showing up in all the wrong places and among all the wrong people, defying our categories and refusing to take direction . . . .God is present both inside and outside the traditional church, working all sorts of everyday miracles to inspire and change us if only we pay attention.”         —page197

“ . . . it’s the way God shows up in those everyday moments—loading the dishwasher, sharing a joke, hosting a meal, enduring an illness, working through a disagreement—and gives us the chance to notice, to pay attention to the divine. It’s the way the God of resurrection makes all things new.               –page 247

“The kingdom isn’t some far-off place you go when you die; the kingdom is at hand—among us and beyond us, now and not-yet. It is the wheat growing in the midst of weeds, the yeast working its magic in the dough, the pearl germinating in a sepulchral shell. It can come and go in the twinkling of an eye. Jesus said. So pay attention; don’t miss it.                  –page 252

“Church isn’t some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here.”*                 –page 258

Rachel Held Evans will be greatly missed by her family, friends, and a multitude of others like me. May we remember her spirit, her life, and her message. May we pay attention and be moved by the Spirit as it breezes and blows through our lives and world in all sorts of ways. May we not miss it—the kingdom, God is here!  

*All quotations are taken from Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church,Nelson Books, 2015.

Culture War! Just Stop It!

Joe Dallas, ex-gay author and speaker, will be presenting a conference, Speaking of Homosexuality with Compassion and Truth, at our local Southern Baptist mega-church this weekend. Some folks in our LGBTQ community are planning a silent vigil near the church during the conference as a means of local LGBTQ visibility and as an expression of opposition to the ideas and beliefs espoused by Mr. Dallas and the host church. I am conflicted as to whether I will participate in the vigil.

I am weary! I am bone tired of this “culture war” and the religious and political struggle inherent in it. I want to scream, “Stop it! Just stop it!” Regardless of which side of this issue one might come down on, just stop the divisive, demonizing, demeaning, and denouncing rhetoric. Stop the protest and confrontations. Why do we publicly battle over something as private and personal as one’s sexuality? One’s sexuality and gender expression is a matter solely between the person and his/her God. The sexuality or gender identity/expression of another person is not my business nor concern. 

My concern is for one’s well being — do they have enough to eat, do they have a safe place to live, do they have a family/community that gives them a sense of belonging and love. My concern is for one’s character – do they show love, kindness, patience, joy, goodness, faithfulness, honesty, and peace.  

My concern is for one’s life – are they able to live a meaningful life knowing the love and support of family, friends, and community, freely exercising their faith tradition, participating in purposeful, satisfying work, contributing to the common good, and engaging in all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities our nation offers.

Why not declare this “culture war” at a stalemate and call a truce? As long as battles to “win” the war continue, we all lose. We continue to beat up one another in a battle that will never be “won.” There will never be agreement one way or the other! Can’t we just keep our opinions and beliefs regarding sexuality issues to ourselves and live in a manner that respects the dignity and sacredness of every individual’s life, life journey, and where one might be in that journey. 

I respect Mr. Dallas’s life and his life journey. Honestly, our journeys were somewhat parallel thirty years ago. I purported to be ex-gay and desired to help those struggling with same-sex attraction. However, through various God encounters, my journey has taken me in a different direction. In no uncertain terms my God assures me of the sacredness of my life, and the sacrament of my relationships. Most especially my eighteen–year covenant relationship with my wife—three of those years legally married. It appears that we don’t all have the same road map. I take issue, as I believe Mr. Dallas does, with expecting or coercing anyone to change and use another’s roadmap.

The fact that we have allowed this “culture war” to become politicized has deepened the trenches. The various court rulings, established laws, and pending legislation that target the already marginalized and vulnerable LGBTQ community have polarized our communities even more. One would think we might have learned from the prohibition era that it does not bode well when government seeks to legislate regarding what is perceived a moral issue. A particularly disturbing aspect of these legislative proposals is the discrimination/denial of services that would be allowed on the basis of “one’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” Ugh! That’s a conundrum for me! I am not a theologian, but I simply don’t recall Jesus excluding or denying his presence or service to anyone.  Perhaps all of us with sincerely held religious beliefs need to ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?”

I still don’t know what to do about the conference and silent vigil! I do know that I am exhausted and weary of this “war.”  Should I participate in the silent vigil in solidarity with my LGBTQ community? That’s important to me, yet I don’t want to draw added attention to the “battle lines.” Maybe I will go to the conference to listen and show respect for those attending and their beliefs — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Matthew 7:12) Whatever I do, I desire to live in the wisdom of Romans 12:18 and “as much as it is in me to live peaceably with all men.”   

It’s Holy Week and I’m Bummed!

Wow! What is it? I have been tired, irritable, sorrowful, and confused for a few days–just bummed, plain and simple. I asked the question, and I may have gotten the answer. It’s Holy Week, and almost 2000 years since Christ’s crucifixion. It’s as if nothing has changed. Now, that’s a bummer!

A sick and desperate young man.

The central messages of Christ’s ministry were love God and love your neighbor as yourself.(Matthew 22: 36-40) He demonstrated this love through acts of mercy, compassion, and truth in love. His acts were inclusive of all people—no exceptions for race, culture, religion, economic status, or sexual identity/expression. He ate with sinners, ministered to lepers, sought justice for the poor and oppressed, welcomed the stranger in the land, invited women to share in his ministry, healed the sick and lame, and confronted the “religious” (the Pharisees) on their hypocrisy. For more on the woes of the Pharisees and Christ’s condemnations check out Luke 11: 37-52 or Matthew 23: 13-29.

A Honduran family fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the US.

This is the week Christ suffered and died because of the sins of the people—sins of exclusivity, greed, and idol worship—idols of money, power, position, and authority. For their sins of failure to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. (Micah 6:8) I look around and am sorrowful as we continue to crucify the Christ daily.

Our natural beauty and resources spoiled by pollution-our carelessness.

We crucify the Christ when we refuse a 26-year old man life-saving medical services because he has no insurance and cannot afford to pay. We crucify the Christ when we refuse care and service to our LGBTQ community, and we do it in the name of religion—“sincerely held religious beliefs.” We crucify the Christ as we attempt to codify into law our exclusivity. We crucify the Christ when we refuse the stranger at our borders and compound his struggle and suffering. We crucify the Christ when we burden the poor with additional taxes while the coffers of the rich are brimming to overfull. We crucify the Christ when we allow the beauty and glory of his creation to be spoiled and polluted.There’s more, but enough said! Surely we get the picture!

A sales tax burden on the poor.

I am bummed, and I strive to hold on to hope—the hope of the resurrection. It is my prayer that as we celebrate resurrection that the true spirit of Christ be resurrected in each of us. That Christ’s spirit might emanate through us in all sorts of ways with acts of love, care and compassion, truth, and justice. Thanks be to God! 

Paying Attention in the Spirit of Mary Oliver!

Going Upstream with Mary Oliver

In her recent Baptist News Global piece, Hidden pencils, urgent warnings and instructions Mary Oliver left the Church, Carol Davis Younger offered a lovely tribute to poet, Mary Oliver, and an insightful exhortation to the church to approach “Scripture – and our world – with the holy curiosity and expectancy Oliver did when she went to the woods and to the shore.” As Younger shared her experience with Upstream, I caught my breath and embraced the mutuality of our stories, our experiences, and perhaps our feelings – Mary Oliver’s, Younger’s, and mine. 

I too became better acquainted with Mary Oliver through her collected essays in Upstream. I was drawn to the book, so much so that I paid full, independent bookstore price for it. Something I rarely ever do! I had admired Mary Oliver as a poet and was curious as to her prose. Being a woods wanderer and stream jumper, the title Upstream, and its connotation of going against the flow, which I often do, piqued my interest. The cover photo looked like a place I would enjoy.  I fully understand Younger’s response to the essay, “Power and Time.” As I read the essay, I felt that I was personally being both affirmed and admonished. I am keenly aware that my creative self needs solitude, a place apart, without interruptions. Oliver buoyed my spirit with her affirmation of this then promptly admonished me for being my own primary interrupter.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? –Upstream, page 23

For me it says that I need to attend this civic meeting, that I should give my wife more time and attention, that I must do my share of home maintenance. Returning to the creative work often finds that the spark of an idea has dimmed and the flow of words has dried up. In the creative work we can be, and probably are, our worst impediment. 

Oliver tells me that the “machinery of creativity” can’t be controlled or regulated. I believe it! More times than I want to recount I have awakened in the wee hours of the morning with an idea or a string of narrative going through my head. Over time, I have learned it is best that I go ahead, drag myself out of bed, and write it down for I will not be able to sleep if I don’t. 

For me, as perhaps for Anderson, Oliver’s most unsettling words are:

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time. — Upstream, page 30

I most assuredly will join Anderson as a “candidate for future regret” as I see a bouquet of withered buds of exciting ideas and plans that failed to blossom because I did not nurture them with power and time. I suppose my task going forward is to recognize the tiny buds of creative thoughts and ideas and give them their needed power and time. I suspect it will be an erratic path even in all my efforts to “keep my eyes on eternity,” reject the responsibilities that have claimed me, and discard the “many heavy coats” that burden. 

My prayer, with a bit of assist from Mary Oliver, as I move forward is:

In my wild and precious life
May I stay forever in the stream.
May I pay attention and find my devotion.
May I be astonished at the profound simplicity of our natural
         world,
Even as I marvel at its intricate complexities.
May I be humbled by its majesty.
May I revere the fruit of the earth-the grass, the flower, the tree.
May I respect the creature — the minuscule and the mighty.
May I glorify the Creator of it all and be grateful.
May I hear the silence that calls to me.
May I feel the rippling waters.
May I stay forever in the stream.
Whether with voice or pen in hand, may I tell about it all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church This Morning: Beyond Words and into Story

 

I slept in and probably got the best sleep I have had in weeks. I greeted, kissed, held my wife, and told her “I love you!” (which I truly do). I had my coffee and cereal for breakfast, then caught a bit of “This Week” on TV, nothing new just a bummed and bleak outlook of politics as usual. We watched a beautiful cardinal in our back yard. Of course I took a picture! I then listened to the music portion of the worship service at our local mega-church. Good, yet I felt a bit of disconnect with cameras zooming in on the abundance of technology and aura of performance.

Since my return to Turn This World Around a few weeks ago, I created an Amy Grant station on Pandora. Well that might be some worshipful listening! I tuned in and skipped around listening to parts of a couple of good songs, once among my favorites, “I Can Only Imagine,” and “Shout to the Lord.” Actually, I skipped so many songs that the program would not allow any more skips and forced me to listen. I turned it off! Too many words and too much busy noise.

Suddenly I had this thought, like an epiphany. Beyond words! It is as if, for me, words are no longer a necessary nor perhaps meaningful mode of worship, my spirituality, or my connecting with God. Now, all of that seems to come with practicing Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.” which is not so much about being quiet and motionless as it is about letting go, releasing control, and acknowledging vulnerabilities in order that we may know God and His power in our lives and the universe. For me it is about worshiping and knowing God with and through a heart of faith. 

Don’t get me wrong! I am not saying that words are nonessentials in our spiritual lives. After all, what am I doing now—writing, sharing my thoughts with words. We use words to share our stories, to connect with one another, to foster meaning and understanding with all sorts of folks in our daily lives. Maybe somewhat like the parables of Jesus. Perhaps only as we go beyond words in our personal worship and spirituality can we use words efficiently and effectively in the enhancement of God’s Kingdom on earth.

As I continued my “church,” I reached for an old journal to write about my Beyond Words! epiphany. Go figure on that one! I thought the journal was empty, and this would be the beginning of my renewed commitment to “story” and story writing and listening. However, the first several pages were filled with quotes from an old reading of Dan Allender’s To Be Told: Know Your Story, Shape Your Future. Coincidence, maybe or maybe not. I was awed as I read what I had copied years ago. Do I still have the book? Yes! I found it on the shelf between David Gushee’s The Sacredness of Human Life and Jim Wallis’s On God’s Side. A couple of quotes that jumped from the pages of To Be Told:

Nevertheless, every story given to us and every story told to another is a precious gift that has the potential to seed us with God. – page 211

It is my responsibility to own what deeply moves me and then to live it out for the sake of others. – page 68 

I am passionate in my belief that everyone’s life is sacred, and as we share our stories with one another we invite greater understanding and compassion – we become portals of grace one to another. Needless to say, I will continue to share my stories and invite you all to do the same.

Turn This World Around

I tugged several of my old college literature anthologies from the bottom bookshelf yesterday. No, not to do any serious study, but to use as weight for a gluing project! A paper filled with my handwriting fell from one of the books. The writing was in verse form, so I thought perhaps an old poem I had written and tucked away.  I have a tendency to do that – start a writing project and put it away not to be found until years later, if at all. But this was not my “writing.” It was the lyrics to an old Amy Grant song, “Turn This World Around.” Apparently the song had some special meaning for me in 1997 since I had taken the time and effort to record the lyrics. The song was included in her Behind The Eyes album released in September 1997 and written by Amy Grant, Beverly Darnall, and Keith Thomas.

Reflecting back on my 1997, in and of itself, it was not a good year, and September was particularly difficult. It was a year of losses and reversals in every area of life – professional, relationship, financial, and health. I could certainly relate to the melancholic melody and many passages in the lyrics of “Turn This World Around.” I was living in the midst of “broken promises and dreams” even as I struggled to carry on “in good disguise.” I needed “somewhere safe and warm” and was thankful for the shelter of friends during this stormy time in my life. I had to “turn and face (my) fears”– the fear of more losses and rejection from family, friends, and the church as I began to acknowledge my same-sex orientation after decades of living in hiding and pretense. I learned to “reach out through (my) tears” and discovered “it’s really not that far to where Hope can be found.”

After finding the paper I dug through my old CD’s. I found it! I had bought it which was something I rarely did. As I listened I recalled the solace and encouragement I had found in other songs in the album such as “I Will Be Your Friend,” “It Takes a Little Time,” Missing You,” and “Somewhere Down the Road.” Today I look at this decades old piece of paper, read these words, and am thankful for how my world was turned around in 1997, albeit after it was turned upside down. Today I hear a more universal and much needed message for our world. The message that behind our eyes “we are all the same it seems.” We all want to be safe and warm and find shelter with others through the storms of our lives. We all need to face our fears and reach out to the other in the midst of suffering—ours and theirs. It is the reaching out and acknowledging the “hunger and longing” that we all know inside that “could be the bridge between us if we tried.”

We all know our world needs to turn around. We are headed in the wrong direction. Look no further than the death and destruction resulting from the numerous and lengthy armed conflicts throughout the world. Grasp the magnitude  of gun violence, the global refugee crisis, increased human trafficking, and world hunger levels rising. We are the world! Only we, working individually and corporately with one another throughout our communities, cities, states, provinces, districts and countries, can turn this world around. Maybe one day we will turn and see behind the eyes of all our brothers and sisters regardless of race, religion, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity and see our sameness, reach out to one another, and experience the will and kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Yes, maybe one day – maybe in this New Year!

The Neighborhood Dress

Big Bend Gallery

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The gap where the Rio Grande exits the Santa Elena Canyon.

I am finally making public some of my photos from our April 2018 Big Bend Trip. Click on the first photo in each group and you can scroll through the photos in the light box.  Unfortunately, I did not upload them all at once, so you will have to view them in groups: BOQUILLAS, THE WINDOW TRAIL, SANTA ELANA CANYON, CASA GRANDE. 

I hope there is no wall built along the Rio Grande River. That is not a political statement, but an ecological statement. The land is awesome. The ecosystems both magnificent and fragile. The views are breathtaking. I can not imagine a wall on this sacred land. Take a look and enjoy!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Showers, Miracles, and Faith

     imagesIt was a gray day with intermittent light and heavy showers.  We needed the rain and I found myself humming, perhaps about the rain, perhaps about the call.

 

 

There shall be showers of blessings
This is the promise of Love.
There shall be seasons refreshing
Sent from the Savior above.

Showers of blessings.
Showers of blessings we need.
Mercy drops round us are falling,
But for the showers we plead.

     I was again waiting for a call. My now eleven-year old great niece was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare and devastating brain tumor, almost three months ago. She tolerated the six-weeks of focused radiation treatments very well and with occasional medication has been fairly symptom free. The doctors say she is doing better than any child they have ever treated with DIPG. We are thankful!

     Last Friday she had an MRI to see if the radiation had had any effects on the tumor and as a prerequisite to possible participation in an immunotherapy clinical trial at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston. From the initial diagnosis we have been keenly aware of the devastating statistical prognosis for DIPG patients. While there has been no denying the science of the disease, we have steadfastly prayed along with possibly thousands of others in our social media and home communities for God’s grace and healing for our girl. Family, friends, community members, total strangers have reached out with love, concern, compassion, and generosity. From the Make-A-Wish Foundation who sponsored a trip so that our girl could get her wish to “swim with the dolphins” to the local community sponsoring an event to raise funds for medical expenses and contributions to DIPG research there has been an outpouring of support that has confirmed our belief in God’s work of grace and goodness through good people. We’ve prayed for a miracle of healing while we’ve experienced the miracle of God’s love and grace everyday since the diagnosis.

     The call came from my sister. “Are you ready for this?” she asked.
     “Yes, what does it show?”
     With a trembling voice she replied, “They can’t see it. It is not there!”
     “What! It’s gone! We prayed for a miracle. Praise the Lord!”  She was waiting to hear more from my niece so we quickly hung up amid tears of joy.

     These last months as I have prayed for healing, grace, wisdom, comfort, and strength for our girl and her family, I have been continually reminded of and prayed John 11:4, a verse I claimed for myself during some difficult days many years ago.

This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.

     Yes, to God be the glory! While trying to soak in the reality of our answered prayer and this miracle, I found myself somewhat incredulous. Before the diagnosis I had prayed for the best even as I prepared for the worst, which is exactly what we got. Perhaps this time we have repeated that scenario, but with a different, positive result. Now that our prayer for the tumor to be gone is the reality, why does it seem incredible?  Is it some flaw in our faith? Do we lack the capacity to fully believe in God’s power and grace? Are we so steeped in the modern science of medicine that we dismiss the Great Physician? Is incredulity inherent in miracles? I am reminded of the words of the tearful father with the epileptic son in Mark 9:24.  Lord, I believe; Help my unbelief!

     I have read the MRI report stating, “There are no focal areas of abnormal signal, restricted diffusion, or abnormal enhancement within the brain. No mass, hemorrhage or acute infarct is present.” I have seen the before and after MRI images confirming no presence of a tumor. The doctors in Austin, Houston, and Boston have described the report findings as “rare, very rare.” One stated she has never seen this type of results following radiation treatment for  DIPG. Doctors have conferred and are confident they did not misdiagnose. The consensus is that the original diagnosis of DIPG was correct, and there is no disputing that the once large, entangled, inoperable tumor is now gone. Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.

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The images on the left are pre-radiation. Those on the right are post-radiation.

     This is not the end of our girl’s medical treatment. As scientists, the doctors are encouraging continued immunotherapy treatments in clinical trials to combat any possible remaining cancer cells. Only time and periodic MRI’s will tell if the tumor returns. Regardless of what the future may hold, in the here and now, we, and thousands of others, are celebrating and giving God the glory for this miracle of grace and healing.

     As the showers continued outside, my heart was flooding with song:

There shall be showers of blessings
This is the promise of Love.
There shall be seasons refreshing
Sent from the Savior above.

     Thank you, God, for your showers of blessings—your miracle of healing, the miraculous medical interventions and technologies that you have allowed man to develop, your grace that sustains our faith, your faithfulness even as our faith falters with doubts, the love and support of friends, family, and total strangers—your kingdom here and now on earth. Thank you for the faith of a child who told her parents as they were driving home from the doctor visit: “You all just didn’t have enough faith. I knew it would be gone.”

     We continue with prayers of thanksgiving and for sustained healing and good health for our girl.

 

 

 

 

 

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