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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.

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 BGCT – Welcoming and Affirming

1460028409100 As the dialogue and apparent divisions within the Baptist General Convention of Texas and local congregations over the issue of a welcoming and affirming stance toward their LGBTQ members continue, I encourage us all to stop and ask ourselves, individually and congregationally, this question: Who are we welcoming and what do we really want to be the focus of our affirmation? The “who,” I believe is relatively simple. We want to welcome ALL peoples into the love of Christ and the fellowship of His Body, the Church. Answering the question, “What do we want to be the focus of our affirmations?” may be a bit more complicated. Or, maybe not!

     I sometimes wonder if we, christian folks and congregations, have not allowed ourselves to be overly focused on the sexual orientation and same-sex marriage issues. Do we really want to spend our time and energies squabbling over these issues and in the process threatening our unity in and ministry for Christ? Enough is enough already! Let’s truly practice our belief in the priesthood of the believer and respect the spiritual discernment of our brothers and sisters in Christ and our congregations in these particular matters. If we continue contentious dialogue or debate, insist on being right or winning the other side over to our “right” way of thinking, or denying fellowship, we are all wrong, and we all lose with the greatest loss being the cause of Christ. We can respectfully state our beliefs and our respect for the others discernment process, acknowledge our disagreement, and agree to disagree. When we do this, we can then turn our energies and cooperative efforts toward focusing on far more meaningful areas of affirmation.

      What might be the affirmations of a welcoming and affirming congregation? Here are a few suggestions for starters:

    — Let’s affirm God’s sovereignty over all our lives.
    –Let’s affirm our love of God and our love for our neighbors.
    –Let’s affirm the sacredness of every person – every human life. Let’s live out that affirmation by treating everyone with respect, seeking to listen to and understand their stories and struggles, and participating in their lives in ways that engender human flourishing, spiritual growth, and opportunities to reach one’s God-given potential.
    –Let’s affirm the sacramental nature of all relationships for every relationship has the potential to be a portal of God’s grace in and to our lives.
    –Let’s affirm and encourage fidelity and commitment in marital, covenantal relationships.
    –Let’s affirm the value of our children and our families by offering support, encouragement, and guidance to parents as they nurture and guide their children.
   –Let’s affirm our desire to follow Christ and be His Body and Presence in and to the world.

     I believe the BGCT and local congregations can be both welcoming and affirming. I believe this as I recall the first scripture verse I ever committed to memory: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” — Philippians 4:13

     Can’t we?

 

BGCT – Welcoming but not affirming

    gay-flag-church I have been particularly distressed, disappointed and saddened by the news coming out of the Baptist General Convention of Texas this week. The BGCT sent letters to Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and First Baptist Church in Austin indicating that any affirming stance toward LGBT members taken by the congregations would place them outside the bounds of “harmonious cooperation” with the convention.

     This is disturbing for several reasons. One being that this action seems to fly in the face of the centuries long Baptist tradition of local church autonomy and subsequently our long held Baptist belief of soul competency or priesthood of all believers. Another concern is the question of creedalism. By drawing “lines in the sand” and delineating requirements for participation, is the BGCT leading Texas Baptists more toward a people of creed and less a people of confession? Also, the timing of the letter might be a bit suspect in that it was sent shortly before Wilshire Baptist was  voting to affirm, or not to affirm, its existing bylaws providing for a single class of membership which would translate into full inclusion for LGBT members. One might view this as the BGCT’s attempt to influence the vote. (Or maybe the peculiarities of our recent national election are skewing my perceptions!) Finally, this is distressing in that it seems to signal the opening volley in what could be a very divisive and contentious struggle within our Texas Baptist congregations and community. It makes me sad when good folks, good Christian folks, bicker and argue with the end result sometimes-perhaps often-being damaged and broken relationships and congregations. Not to mention the damage this does to our mission and witness for Christ!

     I was given some hope by Marv Knox’s editorial, “A welcoming way ahead for the BGCT,” and his discussion around extending grace even as I cringed at some of the comments and suggestions. David Hardage, BGCT Executive Director, is quoted as saying, “I believe a church can be welcoming but not affirming.” Speaking frankly as a gay christian woman and as a member with my partner and now wife of a “welcoming but not affirming” Baptist congregation for almost fifteen years, I have some difficulty with this statement. Although congregation and staff were respectful and kind in most ways, there were actions and words that were at times hurtful. When I made a public statement outside the church regarding the 2005 Texas Marriage Amendment, I was called in and told I could no longer hold any positions of leadership in the church. I was then chairing a church committee, teaching a Sunday School class, and answering the prayer line during our televised services. My sexual orientation, which I had come to view as a minuscule part of who I am as a person and a christian woman, and my covenant relationship with my partner suddenly became prominent in how I was viewed and what I could do to live out my calling in Christ. It hurt! I felt discounted, less than! We also were denied participation in a church family outing with the only explanation being given, “We just think it is best.” It hurt! I felt rejected! When my partner offered a copy of her recently published memoir, sharing her coming out story after decades of struggle with hiding her sexuality, to the church library, the senior pastor would not place it in the library deeming it inappropriate. It hurt! I particularly felt confusion and discord around this incident. We had been hearing much in the church, including from the pulpit, about the importance of our stories, listening to one another’s stories, trying to understand others, and fostering deeper relationships. This action, which screamed, “We don’t want to hear your story!” bewildered me. Was this hypocrisy?

     Even with the incidents and the underlying feeling that we were “second-class members,” we continued to attend and participate in the work and ministry of the church because sharing the love and work of Christ remained our focus. We visited with our pastor on several occasions and though always kind and respectful of one another, we understood each other’s differing beliefs regarding homosexuality and same-sex relationships. We agreed to disagree on these matters, and continued in our commitment to work and minister together. Acknowledging and discussing our differences personally and privately with kindness and respect was the key, for me at least, to being able to continue in a “welcoming but not affirming” congregation. Sadly, this changed in the spring of 2015 when the same-sex marriage issue was being considered in the Supreme Court, and our pastor began to speak openly from the pulpit against same-sex marriage. On April 26, 2015, I read a letter to my Sunday School group (and sent copies to all the staff) informing them that I was leaving the congregation “with no animosity or ill will toward anyone” and why I was leaving. That’s my experience of “welcoming but not affirming.”

     Hardage continues to say regarding welcoming but not affirming, “I believe that (it) is not only possible, but also biblical. . .” From my experience, I would agree it is possible; however, given subsequent feelings of hurt, rejection, hypocrisy, and public denigration, I am not sure the actions were “biblical.”

     From my perspective and experience there is a greater question we must ask and answer with regard to “welcoming and affirming.” It is, “Who are we welcoming and what needs to be the focus of our affirmation?” The “who,” I believe, is relatively simple. We want to welcome ALL peoples into the love of Christ and the fellowship of His Body, the Church. Period! What needs to be the focus of our affirmation gets a bit more complicated. A topic for later thought!

Leaving the Church

abandoned-church_wordsNote:  In the spring of 2015 I made one of the most difficult decisions of my spiritual pilgrimage.  I left the church congregation that I had been a part of for almost fifteen years.  Below is the letter I read aloud to my Sunday School group and sent to my pastor and church staff informing them that I was leaving and why I was leaving as well as why it was important to me that they know why I would no longer be attending.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a truly inclusive, welcoming and affirming congregation in my area, and admittedly, I often miss the corporate worship and fellowship.  My current worship usually occurs on the hiking trail, in the kayak, or while sitting in my back porch swing listening to the birds and watching the squirrels play.  I find fellowship on those occasions I am blessed to sit with  friends and share our lives and stories.

April 26, 2015

Dear

       It is with both sadness and hopefulness that I share with you that this is my last Sunday to be with you in Sunday School and worship at First Baptist Church. After wrestling – praying and seeking discernment — with this decision for several months, my Lord has given me clarity and peace with the decision. I leave with no animosity or ill will toward anyone. I am truly grateful for my years (13 or 14, I forget) at First Baptist and the fellowship with the singles group. Each of you has blessed my life in tremendous ways! I hope and pray that blessing has been mutual.

      I want to share with you the reason(s) for my leaving. Far too often in our lives and fellowship folks just disappear or quit showing up, and we are left confused and questioning as to “what happened.” I don’t want to do that. I value personal authenticity and the integrity of our relationships far too much to just disappear. Some of you know, or after fourteen years have figured it out, that I am gay. I really prefer to refer to myself as a woman and a committed christian who happens to have a same-sex orientation. Lou Anne and I have been in a loving, committed, monogamous covenant relationship for over fourteen years.

      It has become increasingly difficult for me to maintain a continued sense of personal integrity and authenticity as a member of First Baptist knowing the public stance that the church, our pastor, and the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole has taken on same-sex relationships.   As one who believes firmly in the traditional Baptist concept of “soul competency” or “soul liberty,” I truly respect everyone’s freedom to follow their conscience or soul dictates in matters of religion, theology, and scripture interpretation. As I shared with our pastor in May 2012, we truly have Unity through Christ – His love for us, our love for Him, and our desire to share His love with the world – and unity does not mean nor require uniformity in thought and/or action. So, to maintain my sense of personal integrity and authenticity, I believe it is better that I seek a more inclusive, affirming congregation whose beliefs and public stance regarding same-sex relationships are similar to my own than to remain at First Baptist.

     Also, for the sake of the fellowship here at First Baptist, I believe it is better that I leave. Over the last fourteen years I have placed my focus on Christ, His love and His work in our lives, and I have remained mostly silent on my life and my beliefs regarding sexual orientation. The one time I did speak out in a somewhat public forum that was separate from the church, I was promptly removed from Sunday School teaching and leadership responsibilities.   I cannot continue to edit my life and remain silent. I know that issues around same-sex orientation and relationships can be divisive. Families, congregations, even full denominations have become contentious and split over these issues. So, in the grand scheme of things, I believe it is better to leave First Baptist, than to stay and possibly risk creating conflict.

       Be assured that my heart’s desire for us – each of you, First Baptist, and myself – is that we continue to be the church, the body and presence of Christ in and to the world.

In Christ’s Love,

Brenda McWilliams

 

 

Henri Nouwen and a Response to the Orlando Attack

        

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Henri J.M. Nouwen

Last Saturday, June 11, my morning coffee companion was Henri J.M. Nouwen and Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life written and published in 1975. Much of his basic premise is that “the spiritual life is that constant movement between the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer. That morning I was contemplating Nouwen’s words reflecting solitude not as a state of loneliness, but as a condition of our heart and soul that makes “it possible to convert slowly our fearful reactions into a loving response.” How was I to know that the very next morning, June 12, the nation and I would be horrified by the Orlando attack on the LGBT community?

       I am a christian, a follower of Christ. I am also a lesbian. For most of my life I kept my same-sex orientation a secret and did everything I knew to do to not have the attractions and not be gay. It was a secret that took me to the depths of depression, the doors of insanity, and the brink of suicide. In my journeys into contemplation and spiritual solitude I have moved toward acceptance and reconciliation—acceptance of myself as a lesbian christian woman and reconciliation between that fact and my basic spiritual beliefs. I certainly identified with Nouwen’s counsel that in our solitude the events of the world around us “as well as the many personal disappointments and pains, no longer can be seen as unavoidable concomitants of our life, but all become urgent invitations to a response; that is a personal engagement.”

       Faced with the burdens of our reality, the few “extremists” or “fanatics” become “indispensable reminders that no lasting healing will ever take place without a solidarity of heart.” These few “force us to ask ourselves how many games we play with ourselves and how many walls we keep creating to prevent ourselves from knowing and feeling the burden of human solidarity.” Nouwen proclaims that we fluctuate “between the humble confession that the newspaper holds more than our souls can bear and the realization that it is only through facing up to the reality of our world that we can grow into our own responsibility.”

        Do we and how do we protest the realities of our world out of solitude? Hopefully we do as “life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.” Nouwen reminds us that, “When our protest against war, segregation, social injustice, (the Orlando attack against the LGBT community,) do not reach beyond the level of a reaction, then our indignation becomes self-righteous, our hope for a better world degenerates into a desire for quick results, and our generosity is soon exhausted by disappointments. Only when our mind has descended into our heart can we expect a lasting response to well up from our innermost self.”

       Can we, in the solitude of our hearts truly listen to the pains of the world—most especially now the pains of our LGBT community? Nouwen asserts that we can for in the solitude of the heart “we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us.” When we stand in solidarity with our fellow humans, our LGBT brothers and sisters, in their suffering and pain, then “our first attempts to alleviate these pains can come forth.” Feeling another’s pain leads us to compassion, which “brings healing and new strength. The paradox indeed is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with the pain.” Nouwen recalls our history “when men and women have been able to respond to the events of their world as an occasion to change their hearts, an inexhaustible source of generosity and new life has been opened, offering hope far beyond the limits of human prediction.” My thoughts go to the work and movement of Ghandi in India, Mandela in South Africa, and King in America.

       Nouwen reminds us that spiritual “movement from loneliness to solitude, therefore, is not a movement of a growing withdrawal from, but rather a movement toward, a deeper engagement in the burning issues of our time.” Our acceptance, affirmation, and welcoming of our LGBT persons has been an issue in our nation for decades. Does not the senseless, violent attack targeting the LGBT community known to frequent Pulse, prominently known as a gay club, elevate the issue to that of “burning issue?” Must we not respond and engage this issue from the solitude of our hearts!

       And then Sunday morning, June 12, 2016, happened! With my shock and horror of the attack, with my heart both numb and yet heavy with sorrow and compassion, and with Nouwen’s word fresh in my heart, I was moved to engage, to seek a creative response — to bring our local LGBT community as well as our community at large together in a gathering to remember and honor the Orlando victims, and to stand in solidarity in our pain and sorrow as well as in our hope and resolve for positive change and a brighter future. Over 200 people gathered at a local park on Thursday evening, June 16, and we did just that. My words to that gathering and to everyone, everywhere:

On behalf of East Texas PFLAG and our other sponsors – Tyler Together, Pineywoods Voice, Tyler Area Gays, Tyler Transgender Support Group, East Texas Islamic Society, and Life Covenant Church – I want to say welcome and thank you for your attendance and participation this evening. We are gathered here as a community to stand in solidarity with Orlando and the families and friends of the victims in the horrific attack on the LGBT community there last Sunday. Earlier this week, our president called for our nation’s flag to be flown at half-mast in memory and honor of the victims in Orlando. Tomorrow our nation’s flag will return to full mast “normal,“ if you will. But life will never be the same for friends and families of the Orlando victims, nor for the LGBT community, most especially for those whose lives were murderously taken last Sunday morning. They have no life to live. We want to take this time to remember and honor those killed and reflect on 49 lives, 49 sacred souls with names and faces that were snuffed out by an act of senseless violence fueled by hate and terrorism. As we seek to come to grips with, and process the shock and horror of the attack, we grieve and we support one another. For those of you who may not be an integral “part” of the LGBT community, we want you to know that your presence and your shared grief and support is important, desperately needed, and much appreciated.

Now, we will remember and honor the victims, their families and friends as we join one another in the bonds of our common humanity – our sorrow in loss and our hopes for positive change and a brighter future. John David Creamer, pastor of Life Covenant Church, will lead us in prayer.

(As each name and brief bio of the 49 victims was read a volunteer from the crowd walked to the front carrying their picture. A bell was rung.)

As we prepare to leave this place may we carry these sacred lives with us. May the light of their lives continue to shine in us and through us and may their light guide us and give us courage. Courage to act in ways that champion acceptance, not accusation; courage to seek out and participate in conversations and community, not condemnation; courage to speak and act in ways that foster love and compassion, not hate and violence. Courage to know, not just in our heads, but also in our hearts, that every human life is sacred and to live respectfully of one another and our beautiful, God-given diversities.   In doing these things, then, and only then, will we truly remember and honor these 49 beautiful, sacred lives.

Join me in 49 seconds of silence as we remember these, reflect, and resolve to act and live in ways to honor these 49 and ultimately ourselves and our community.

(Silence).

Thank you.

       Anwar Khalifa with the East Texas Islamic Society will close our gathering.

It was an outpouring of community solidarity, grief, compassion, and love. In his closing, Anwar asked all the clergy present to come to the front and join him for the closing prayer. A very moving and much needed gathering together. It is my hope and prayer that as a local community, a nation, and a world we will seek the solitude of our hearts and that our hearts will change in ways that nurture our compassion and desire to live in solidarity with all humankind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sacred: Part II-Reflections and Ponderings

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          “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this:  the sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationship, and the sacredness of death.”

          In reflection, it seems ironic that the night I heard these words ended my CPE training. I continued to have difficulty with the retina, needed additional surgical procedures, and was not able to return. However, I continued, and to this day continue, to revisit and ponder upon the events of that night and the words I had heard. Given the manner in which I had received them they were much more than mere words. It felt as if they were more like an edict, a proclamation, a lens through which to view all of life.

          “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this: the sanctity of life. . .”

          I know that sanctity is the quality or state of being holy or sacred; thus life itself is considered holy and sacred; inviolable — to important to be ignored or treated with disrespect. The origin of “sanctity” is the Latin word “sanctus” meaning sacred. 

          I believe the “sanctity of life” message that I heard was a foundational theological and spiritual truth based on the sacredness of life — all lives.  It was not the “sanctity of life” political message that was being touted then, and we hear often today in the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice debate. Again, it was a universal truth based on the sacredness of life — all lives. We hear today the expressions — Black Lives Matter, LGBT Lives Matter, Cops Lives Matter — and they do because ALL LIVES MATTER. Oh, that we might embrace ALL LIVES MATTER and SANCTITY OF LIFE as spiritual truths and live them out in our daily lives and not simply use them as catchy slogans to promote our political, racial, or cultural biases.

          Christianity’s foundation for sanctity of life is grounded in the doctrine that God is the Creator and God chose to create man in His image. Man is God’s image bearer. It is also quite relevant and important to notice that this valuing, worthiness, sacredness of life is universal to the traditions of all major world religions and perhaps represents their deepest teachings, roots and values. Sadly, we, all of us, are not living up to our traditions.

         “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this. . .the sacrament of relationships. . .

          What does that mean? Being brought up in the Baptist faith tradition, I was more familiar with the term ‘ordinances’ than “sacrament” so I had to do some study.  I knew of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as “sacraments” in the Protestant faith traditions.  I quickly learned there are seven sacraments in the Catholic faith tradition. But,what exactly is a sacrament? What is the meaning and purpose of a sacrament or sacramental rite.

          Well, I read a lot about sacraments, their meaning and purpose.  Most of which I understood, some I did not as I am not a theological scholar.  I was able to grasp that sacrament is derived from the Latin word sacramentum and means “a sign of the sacred.” A sacrament is also a portal of grace in and to our lives.  Sacraments not only come from God, but they also make God present in our lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Sacraments are visible signs of invisible things whereby man is made holy.”

            So, in my ponderings, I have come to understand sacrament to be an outward expression of the sacred/the holy, that which points us toward God, and/or that which invites God’s participation in our life. I had learned long ago that in a sacramental marriage God’s love is manifest in the loving, grace filled, covenant relationship between the couple. God and His love are mirrored in that relationship. Thus, the sacrament of marriage is intended to be an outward sigh of God’s love and grace, the sacred and holy.  Now, that is in theory, at least. We know from experience that that is not nearly always the case.

          As I continued to ponder on “sacrament of relationship” I began to ask myself could it not be possible for us to manifest/mirror the love of God in all our relationships from the loving, covenant relationship between life long partners, to the kind, helpful, affirming relationship between intimate friends and family, to the courteous, respectful relationships with our co-workers, to the respectful acceptance of differences with those we call our enemies. If we accept the premise of the sanctity/sacredness of human life — all human life — then it is not a huge jump to conclude that if I am sacred, and you are sacred, then how we relate and treat one another should be “an outward expression of the sacred” — a sacrament, if you will. Can our relationships not be a “portal of grace” to one another? The sacred in me recognizes, respects, and responds to the sacred in you in a sacred fashion. Can not the sacred and grace be expressed in how we relate to one another? Thus, the Sacrament of Relationships–all relationship.

          “Brenda, if you know nothing else, know this. . .the sacredness of death.”

          What is sacred and holy about death? For so long in our cultural history we have not talked about death and dying and what it means for us individually and as a people. Thankfully, we are beginning to move toward conversations regarding death, even our own deaths. As Michael Dodd, a religious naturalist, says, “Death is sacred, necessary, and real.”

          As I studied the word “sacred,” the definition “worthy of or regarded with religious honor and respect” caught my attention. Certainly through my experiences that evening in the hospital, I began to view death with a worthy regard and sense of honor – sacredness. I suppose that, in the first place, if we view the individual life as sacred then the death of that life is no less sacred. Death is a necessary and inevitable part of the cycle of life. As surely as we have birth and life, we must have death. In our natural world, death is life-giving.

          Just a little aside here: I have an affinity for dead trees, and my partner gives me grief about that at times, especially when I am taking photos of them. I see a dead tree still standing tall or fallen, and I am in awe at the growth and change that has occurred from tiny seed to towering trunk. I envision the life that the tree has exuded and nurtured from the insects it has fed, to the nests and young is has held, to the seeds and seedlings it has propagated. Even in its dying it will decay and continue to provide sustenance and return rich, life-giving nutrients to its mother earth. For me, that is a sacred process.

           Then even more so would not the death of a person, any human being regardless of race, creed, or culture, be a sacred thing. Consider with wonder the growth and change the person has experienced in his/her lifetime. Note with awe, perhaps most strikingly, at the deathbed, the lives, the family, the relationships the person influenced and nurtured. Yes, and even as much as we don’t like to think about it, and however we frame it –“dust to dust, “ashes to ashes,” “coming from God and returning to God,” that person’s remains will in some fashion return to the earth and become life-giving. Death – a sacred/holy thing in the cycle of life.

          Now, in my opinion, what makes us as humans different from the tree is our attribute of soul or spirit. What I have come to believe regarding the human soul/spirit — and I believe it is undeniable and universal — is that it is “eternal.” In our christian faith tradition the soul/spirit of the deceased has eternal life with God. And, perhaps an additional way of viewing eternal life is that the soul/spirit of the deceased is carried and lives on within us — in our hearts and souls and in our minds and memories. And that is a sacred/holy thing—coming from and perhaps an extension of our sacramental relationships.

          “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this – the sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationship, and the sacredness of death.”

          Those words have become transformative in my life – my beliefs, my thinking and my sense and expression of my spirituality. I had begun to move and grow from a more rigid, perhaps fundamental, spiritual worldview a couple of years prior to this experience. You might say this night and these words somewhat “sealed the deal.” I am, and always will be, a christian (with a small “c”), a Jesus-follower, and a member of the church catholic – again small “c.” However, much of the dogma and doctrine of faith traditions no longer fit into my new found paradigm of what is truly sacred and holy.

          What I heard that night was a universal spiritual truth of the sacredness of life, relationships, and death common to all peoples, cultures, and faith traditions.   In all our differences, we as the human race hold, at the very least, these three things in common. We all have life. We are living, breathing, and capable of thought, emotion, and action.

          We all have relationships. We are born into relationship. You and I are someone’s son or daughter, perhaps mother or father, or brother or sister. So is our neighbor that aggravates us at times, our Muslim co-worker, the immigrant, perhaps undocumented, that does our yard work, the adorable grocery clerk, the annoying taxicab driver, the soldier we would call our enemy. All people are in relationships, and someone loves them and they love others. Think about it.

          We will all die, at some point, and that death will be sacred as it marks the passing of a sacred life, a shift in sacramental relationship, a return to that from which we came. In death we all participate in that natural circle of life. In death, a life is mourned by others, and others will continue to carry the soul/spirit of the deceased within themselves.  

           We can’t escape it. The sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationships, and the sacredness of death are elements that unite us with one another. It is my hope and prayer that we can come to realize this at both the head and the heart level, come to truly see others as “sacred” beings, and seek a respectful, peaceful unity in sacramental relationships with all peoples.

 

 

The Sacred Part I: What I Heard!

We are in the midst of Holy Week and I awakened this morning to the breaking news of a deadly attack in Brussels. Two locations bombed, thirty-one individuals killed without provocation, hundreds others injured–physically and/or emotionally, and relationships and families thrown into turmoil and grief with the loss of loved ones. In the wake of increasing global violence and incidents such as this, I am shaken with grief and despair. I am apt to question “why.” Why do we continue to destroy our fellow humankind? What have we lost, forgotten, or failed to learn in our lives’ journeys that we treat one another with such disregard and inhumanity.
      Honestly, as I lay in bed last night, I committed to sharing this post today. The news of this morning affirms our need to be reminded of what is holy and sacred.  I so want to hope in the midst of despair! 

The Sacred: Part I– What I Heard!Unknown

      In the late 1980’s I marked a verse in my old King James Bible, Matthew 10:27:

What I tell you in darkness that speak ye in light, and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the housetops.

 

More recently I discovered and really like The Message translation:

             Do not hesitate to go public, now!

I’m going public today and share my story of an experience that changed me, my life, and my spiritual path and journey.

         In October of 1997 I was in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE – chaplaincy) training. I was six weeks into the course, and it was my first rotation being on call– an all-nighter as hospital chaplain on-call. As I sometimes do with first-time experiences, I felt a bit apprehensive, but not overly so, trusting God to lead and guide in all that I might be called upon to say or do. I also knew that as I began the evening, I was a bit more vulnerable –physically, spiritually, and emotionally — than I might ordinarily have been in that I was recovering from surgery for a detached retina. The last couple of weeks had been full of uncertainties. My prayers were for a quiet night.
         I began the evening by making a few visits and the “rounds” of the various floors and departments. I then retired to my assigned “sleeping” room. Although, there would be no sleeping that night. Without going into the details of each case, I will simply say that there were four deaths in the hospital that night.
         The first was a heart attack victim in the emergency room — a 60 year old man, a family in the midst of shock, confusion, questioning, and grief. I have distinct memories of physically supporting the wife as she stood by the gurney holding her deceased husband’s hand. I did everything I knew to do as chaplain even as I wrestled with this, my first face to face encounter with death.
         The second was a middle-aged woman who had been on life support for several days and the decision had been made to remove the life support. I checked in on the family a couple of times, thankfully, the family’s minister was present with them.
         The third death that evening was an elderly gentleman in the oncology unit. He was alone as family members did not arrive until after he had expired. The final death was an older gentleman also in the oncology unit. His wife and daughter were present with him. I assisted them with some of the necessary paper work and waited with them until the funeral home came for the remains. When they left, I walked them to their car through the maze of construction that was going on at the time. As I walked back into the hospital through the construction tunnel shrouded in black plastic, it was four o’clock in the morning. I was exhausted — even more drained than when the evening began. I recall my prayer as I walked, “Please, God, no more tonight.”
         I got back to my “sleeping” room and leaned against the bed. That’s when it happened. I fell apart–overwhelmed with emotion and exhaustion. I began to cry — deep gut wrenching sobs. The events of the evening were soaking in, and I felt tremendous sorrow for the families. I also felt a sense of wonder and gratitude for the guidance and grace that got me through the night. In the midst of my sobbing I heard God’s voice — not a loud audible voice, yet more than “a still, small voice.” I heard these clear, distinct words in the depths of my heart, mind and soul.

              “Brenda, if you learn and know nothing else, know this: the sanctity of Life, the   sacrament of Relationship, and the sacredness of Death.”  

I was taken aback. Where did that come from? And I continued to weep hearing those words over and over again.
      I did lay down for a bit, but sleep was impossible. The events and scenes from the evening were running like a video loop in my head. I could not shake them. In wonder and awe and still somewhat incredulous, I kept hearing and thinking about His words. The message that the most important things in life to know were the sanctity of life, the sacrament of relationship, and the sacredness of death. It was as if when we know and practice these, everything else will take care of itself. I left the room early, completed the log of the night’s events, and exited the hospital shortly after 7 am in wonder and awe, and with lots to ponder. 

Rock Springs Run! I Almost Missed It!!

0924150939-00Since our arrival at Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka, FL my desire and intent was to kayak down the Rock Springs Run Paddle Trail, which is touted as the number one paddle trail in Central Florida. I must admit that even with my desire and intent, I felt a nagging anxiety. Yes, I felt nervous, uncertain, scared, and fearful of doing what I wanted to do. I suppose my anxiety was rooted in several things. First, I have never kayaked this particular paddle trail. I would literally be entering unknown and uncharted waters — at least for me. Second, I would be doing the paddle alone. I know, the “rules” of kayaking urge us not to go it alone, but in this instance, I have no choice. Do it alone, or don’t do it at all! Third, it is a long paddle — 8.5 miles — requiring four to five hours minimum paddle time. Fourth, Rock Springs Run is on the Wekiva River which is designated a National Wild and Scenic River. Now, I am fine with scenic. It is the “wild” that causes me pause. In this case one might translate “wild” into alligators. Also, I had been told that the current in the upper run was fairly swift, and the river was definitely not straight — lots of crooks and turns. This combination can be difficult and even treacherous. So, I was anxious. Bottom line – I was scared!

I knew that if I didn’t push through the fear and do the paddle that I would be disappointed with myself and with not getting to experience the river up close. So I shared my feelings with Lou Anne which actually made me feel better and decided that I would go to the launch point, King’s Landing, talk with the folks there about the river conditions, take a look at the water, and then make my decision. Which is exactly what I did and launched the kayak at 9:30 am. I would paddle the 8.5 miles to Wekiva Island, and Lou Anne would meet me at the take-out there at 1:00 – 1:30 pm. I set the launch location as a waypoint on my GPS, set the trip odometer, and paddled out. Still a bit anxious, but ready for the challenge!

I entered the main channel and was greeted by dense water lilies with a paddle trail snaking through their midst. There were also a couple of houses on the right — nothing wild about that. The river was wide bank-to-bank, but the water lilies made the paddling trail much narrower. This was the case intermittently throughout the trail. Toward the end of the trail these plants were blooming a colorful red and blue. When I was not traversing the lilies, the banks were lush and green with large towering oaks, palms (the short, bushy saw palmetto as well as the cabbage palm tree), and the occasional cypress. It was a jungle out there – really!!

0924151012-00 I wasn’t far into the paddle when I spotted my first alligator. It was swimming parallel to the kayak about 8-10 feet to my right. With him being in the water, it was difficult to gauge his size. Given the distance between his eyes (sometimes this is all you see of them) and his wake in the water, I guessed him to be about 4-5 feet. Sorry, no photos! For me, the right action when spotting a gator in the water is to keep moving and not do anything to draw attention to myself.   The presence of alligators in the river forced me to change my paddling patterns. I normally enjoy paddling close to the riverbanks just to get a closer look at the plants and critters. However, with the gators as often-unseen companions and with their propensity to lie quietly in the vegetation along the banks, I opted to keep my paddling path in the middle of the river. This was my first of four alligator sightings this day. All were quite similar, with the exception of one in which the gator was swimming across the river. He spotted me and went under the water. If he stayed on the same path underwater, I floated over him. My only thought was, “I hope he doesn’t come up while under me!” I moved forward with short, quick paddle strokes in hopes of not disturbing him!

About thirty minutes into the paddle, I had a definite decision to make. I came to a sign reading: King’s Landing Blue Band Turn Around. I knew that my destination was still at least eight miles down river. Yet, I launched from King’s Landing and the attendant had placed a blue band on my wrist. Does that sign apply to me? I decided it did not and continued down the river, which became much narrower with more obstructions, fallen trees or branches, in or over the water. I was paddling deeper into the jungle! As the river narrowed, the current was more noticeable, and my river trail became one crook and turn after another. The wild had now merged with the scenic! I had to pay attention and be intentional with my paddle. It became a challenge to place the paddle in the water at the right time and rudder angle to make the upcoming turn, and to make it before the current carried the kayak into the oncoming bank. I maneuvered the kayak left, then right, then right again, then left again consistently. Only once did I have to dig myself out of the bank. No, you won’t see photos of these sections of the river, as I was too busy with the paddle!

0924151030-00  I was enjoying the paddle and the challenge of the crooks, turns, and the fallen trees and branches even as I felt I was going “deeper into the jungle.” Maybe an hour to an hour and half in, I encountered an obstacle that would require much more strategy and maneuvering than any of my previous encounters. A large tree, probably 18-24 inches in trunk diameter, had fallen and was blocking the entire span of the river. I considered going to the right, but the still green branches filled the river and even lay upon the bank. The left option looked a bit more promising. The base of the tree was high enough up on the bank that with my 5’ 3” stature there was a possibility of going under the fallen trunk albeit a “duck” would be needed. This plan was complicated by the fact that the tree had fallen across another large tree trunk that obviously had been in the water much longer. The resulting trunk configuration looked like a slightly squeezed “X” lying on its side. The water level barely covered the lower cross trunk, but there was enough for me to push my kayak over it. Actually, as I started the crossing, the current pushed the kayak and me laterally over the lower trunk. Luckily, I was still in the kayak. The next step was to push and paddle the kayak along the trunks toward the bank, make a right turn at the opening, duck, and go under the upper trunk. I did it! My heart was pounding and my hands shaking, no doubt, the result of both the exertion and the fear. I must admit that there was a moment as I struggled to push and paddle the kayak up and through the opening that I thought, “Am I going to make it!”

I relaxed for a bit, basking in the excitement of having met the challenge. As the trail continued to be littered with obstacles and having encountered the large tree blockage, I suddenly recalled something I had read previous to launching to the effect that the staff of King’s Landing does a good job of keeping the Rock Springs Run free of obstacles. Hgh!   I was not experiencing a run “free of obstacles!” I then remembered, “King’s Landing Blue Band Turn Around.” Whoa! My heart was not pounding. It had been grabbed and caught tight in the vise of FEAR. Where am I? Am I lost? Should I have turned around? Do I need to turn around now? I don’t know that I can paddle two hours against this current? How will I get around that tree again?

To counter these questions, my first response was to tell myself, “Just breath, Brenda, just breath.” Is it really possible that I had turned the wrong direction? I kept visualizing a map of the river that did have a side stream; maybe I had turned down that stream. I dug in my wet sack and pulled out a simple map of the paddling trail. No, that side stream was off the lower section of the river. I was in the upper part of the river. I felt somewhat better. I then remembered that the day before when I left Wekiwa Springs for a short paddle I had set a waypoint on my GPS. I also knew that today’s paddle would take me toward Wekiwa Springs and less than a quarter of a mile from that waypoint. I pulled the GPS out. I had traveled almost three miles today already. I located the Wekiwa Springs waypoint and programed the GPS to “Go To” that waypoint. When the screen popped up, I felt a wave of relief. My current location was on the track between this morning’s King’s Landing waypoint and yesterday’s Wekiwa Springs waypoint. I was headed in the right direction! I just needed to keep paddling.

And paddle I did with even greater enjoyment and confidence. My confidence was bolstered even more when I saw the brown state park sign that read, “You are halfway.” I had reached that part of the run within the bounds of Wekiwa Springs State Park. Eventually I passed Otter, Big Buck, and Indian Mound Campsites maintained by the state park. I knew I was doing well on my time so I parked the kayak – lodged it against a tree trunk – pulled out my snacks, rested, and ate a bite of lunch consisting of an apple and mixed nuts. As I sat in the kayak, I remembered my fear and being scared about doing the run. Just think! I almost missed it! I almost missed this adventure – the alligators, the lily pads, the narrow twisting, turning river, the jungle, the heart stopping fear, the satisfaction of rising to the occasion and meeting the challenges.

I finished the run. The river widened. The jungle disappeared – so much so I had to break out the sunscreen. The lily pads returned sporting gorgeous red blooms and so thick they brushed the sides of the kayak as I maneuvered the trail. I saw another alligator or two. They kept moving and so did I. The last half hour or so I actually met some other folks making their way upstream. Not what I would want to do! I arrived at Wekiva Island around 1:30 pm pretty much on schedule feeling both very tired and very content. Lou Anne was walking down to the landing to meet me. What an adventure I had to share! Just think, I almost missed it!        September 24, 2015

THE BEACH OUTING! — September 6, 2015

We got up at 7:30 am and were off to MCC Holy Cross of Pensacola by 9:15 am. There was a good crowd at church and I enjoyed the service — praise and worship music was uplifting and the sermon was good. One we all need to hear and heed regarding taking care of our world and the earth because there is no “dealership” where we can go and purchase a replacement.

IMG_1117  After church we drove to Pensacola Beach on the Gulf Shore National Seashore. The gleaming white sands and crystal clear blue/green water still amazes me. It is so unlike our Texas Gulf – murky, brown, and stinky! We sat our chairs up on the ridge of sand just above the incoming waves and enjoyed our picnic lunch. Of course, we lathered up with sunscreen before eating. The temperature was a both/and. We were both warmed by the sun, and the truth be known it was hot, and cooled by the sea breeze. The seashore is a tease that way! It is hot, but the breeze makes it feel cooler

We went into the water and played for a while letting the waves “wash” us back to shore. I went about 100 yards out, and the water was still only hip to chest deep. In our “washing” we occasionally had to look toward the shore and find our chairs, only to realize that the waves had carried us far down the beach. The “washing” was fun, but walking against the waves to our point of origin proved to be somewhat of a workout for the old legs!

We retired to our chairs and enjoyed the vast view — 180 degrees — horizon to horizon. I listened in darkness to the consistent, rhythmic melody of the soothing rolling surf. I dug my feet into the sand and felt the warmth and cool of the gritty massage. I watched the children playing– onIMG_1125e cute little girl in particular. She looked to be about 18-20 months old and was decked out in a pink and white bathing suit topped with a matching cap. Regardless of coaxing by Mom and older brother and sister, she literally dug her heels in and absolutely refused to go into the water. If the diminishing waves caught her feet, she screamed and ran backwards.   She squealed and seemed the most content when grabbing fists full of sand and throwing it in the air. Oh, such simple delights of children!! What a joy!!

As we started back into the water, we noticed an ominous cloud behind us. A front was predicted to come through with a possibility of thunderstorms. With the winds ahead of the front the surf was up moderately and the yellow caution flags were flying. We went back into the water anyway and continued our jumping and “washing” exercise. Of course, occasionally we didn’t jump soon enough or high enough and would get blasted by the wave swell or breaking surf. This brought on episodes of spitting and sputtering and attempts to get the salt water of the mouth and eyes. That usually doesn’t wIMG_1126ork — trying to get salt sea water out of your eyes with hands wet with same is a fruitless effort. Oh, well, just endure the momentary sting and let the natural tears do their thing and all is soon well! The playing continued until we heard the roll of thunder in the distance and saw a flash of lightning.

Out of the water we came, gathered our things, and lugged them back to the car, as did many others. Dripping and gritty we prepared for the drive back to our camper trailer looking forward to a warm shower and dry clothes. Not looking forward so much to the cleanup — sand in the chairs, towels, car, etc. Why is an outing atthe beach so much fun and at the same time takes so much effort?   Ah, but that horizon to horizon vista, the rhythmic sound of the rolling surf,  the warm, cool sad between your toes, and the squeals of delighted children!! It tickles my soul and makes my spirit soar! No doubt, it is worth the effort!

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