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September 2007
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The Problem With Having a Conscience

My husband Dan is one of those guys who is prone to shouting at the newspaper. The front page story in the Post today entitled "Mukasy Losing Democrats' Backing" had him going this morning. "That's the problem with having a freaking conscience!" he yelled. "You end up having to say that some of your friends are wrong!"

He was reacting to this sentence: "Mukasey also said he is reluctant to offer opinions on interrogation techniques because he does not want to place U.S. officials 'in personal legal jeopardy'...." But if what they are doing is not only morally repugnant, but illegal according to the U.S. constitution, then they are already in "personal legal jeopardy", aren't they? And if they aren't, then they should be.

The previous paragraph exposed another problem with having some kind of moral backbone: "Mukasey said that techniques described as waterboarding by lawmakers "seem over the line or, on a personal basis, repugnant to me, and would probably seem the same to many Americans." But, he continued, "hypotheticals are different from real life, and in any legal opinion the actual facts and circumstances are critical."

To say that there is such a thing as a basic "human right", or to say that there is some kind of moral basis for our behavior, wherever that might come from, is to say that we are willing to make some kind of judgment about what is right and wrong in abstraction from the particulars of a situation or the particular person engaged in that behavior. And while I do believe that much of our life together requires a kind of moral nuance that is often missing from public debate, I also believe in a bottom line. And I believe that waterboarding is way, way below that bottom line.

This past Sunday's "Speaking of Faith" program featured a number of speakers talking about Reinhold Niebuhr and his on-going impact on conversation today regarding ethical behavior in the public sphere. Paul Elie, the author of an article on Niebuhr in this month's The Atlantic, made this comment on the show:

I think there's a yearning in our culture for people whose basic commitments are prior to politics, who have a frame of reference that's larger than politics, which isn't to say simply that they don't, favor one party or the other, but that they have a vocabulary, a frame of reference that helps to explain their political commitments instead of the political commitments coming first.

I know I'm yearning for that. But Mukasy doesn't seem to have it.

Speaking for God

This morning I received an interesting email, sent to the email address found on the KC website. It was from someone whose name I didn't recognize, and it asked, "Is there a hell beyond this life, and is anyone actually going there, and if so, why?"

Wow. Those are really big questions, and its pretty amazing to me that anyone would suppose I would have an answer to them. So my first reaction was to feel humbled. What an awesome thing to be in a position to speak or write about those questions, and to have my answers be given some kind of authority becuase of my position.

And shortly thereafter I began to feel annoyed. I was pretty sure, after all, that the person who asked the question wasn't really looking to me for insight. Rather, I was pretty sure the questions were asked for the purpose of engaging me in a debate for the purpose of proving that he was right and I was wrong. And in the end, conversations like that are really not the way I like to spend my time.

So, I wrote back and suggested that since I can't speak for God, I can't give answers to those questions. I can speculate, but in the end, what's the point of arguing about my speculations versus anyone else's? Well, that response led my correspondent to ask: "Isn't that precisely what a pastor is called to do? Who is it you speak for from the pulpit week after week, if not God? Are you just speaking for yourself? And if so, what sort of "ministry" is that?"

Despite it's irksome tone, I think that's a pretty good question. Each Sunday as I begin to preach I say a prayer based on Psalm 19, "May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts together, be acceptable to you O Lord, for you are our strength and our redeemer." I love that prayer because it helps me to remember that everyone in the room is working with me as I preach, but that in the end, what happens will happen because of God. My prayer is that somehow, in the midst of all my words and all our thoughts, the Word of God will be spoken and received. But I would never, ever suggest that when I open my mouth to speak, I'm speaking for God.

I do know that I am called to stand in for Jesus at times--when I invite people to his table at communion, for example, or when I sit at someone's bedside in the hospital and hold their hand. In those moments, I know its "not about me", but about the one in whose name I act. We often talk at KC about being instruments of God, or being put to use by God in the world, often in ways we don't expect.

So, I imagine there are even times when the words I speak are used by God to teach or console or inspire. But also know that a lot of what I say is colored by my biases, my particular life experiences, my place in the world. I would never suggest I could untangle true insight from the stuff that mixed in.

Luckily, I have found that I don't have to. My job--my calling--as a preacher, as a pastor, is just to show up to God with as much honesty as I possibly can, to listen as well as I can, and to witness out of the relationship with God that results as simply and clearly as possible.

The Problem With Living In Your Body

I'm really good at "yeah, but's...", probably as a result of the early imprint of high school debate. I can almost always see the other side of any argument I happen to make. Ever since I wrote about the benefits of being alive and present to our bodies, I have been thinking about the problems with doing exactly that.

I realize that this sound like a slightly weird dilemma. After all, there may be pros and cons to having a body, but what's the alternative? It's not like we can choose to be disembodied spirits instead of embodied human beings. And while that's true, it really is amazing to realize that we can choose to live as if we were disembodied spirits. We can choose to ignore our bodies, to neglect them, and to live life as if we were floating heads.

A lot of us do this, and don't even realize we're doing it, until we have an experience which makes us show up to our whole body and start living there. I'm sure there are a number of experiences which can push us in that direction. For me, the main ones have been pregnancy, sexuality, intuitive eating and yoga.

I'm no expert on that last one. My forays into yoga have been interesting, but brief. But I know a little bit about the power of that practice from my own experience, and even more from Matthew Sanford's amazing book, "Waking: A Memoir of Trama and Transcendence". I first heard of this book when Sanford gave an incredible interview on the NPR show, "Speaking of Faith".

Sanford was paralyzed from the chest down at the age of thirteen in a car accident that also killed his father and sister. His book tells the story of his recovery from that accident, a journey that eventually led to his becoming a yoga practitioner and teacher of "adaptive yoga" to disabled people. Before he discovered yoga, he writes, he really did see himself as a "floating torso". He essentially ignored the paralyzed part of his body. But yoga brought him into relationship with even the parts of his body that he can't feel or use, and taught him to fully restore his mind-body connection.

This wasn't an easy task, it turns out. As he began to reconnect with the parts of his body which had been cut off from him by his accident, he found himself re-experiencing the trauma of that experience. Somehow, his body had retained a memory of a trauma that his mind did not have access to. When he begins to have vivid flashbacks of the accident, he's terrified. But eventually he realizes, "Healing, however, is not instantaneous. It is earned. There is no way to step around my body's past experience. I am terrified. My body has much to say, and it needs acknowledgment. More important, I need to feel grateful."

That's the insight that eventually changes everything. His body has been working hard to sustain his life, and it has done well. He can honor it, even though it's broken. For me, I read his story as a real-life parable of traveling into death and coming out on the other side, resurrected.

I have a feeling that Sanford's story is a more extreme version of a story each of us could tell. Our bodies carry the memory of trauma--of pain, of brokenness, of death--and when we show up to our bodies, when we consent to hear what they have to say to us, we will hear some harrowing things. But the promise of the Gospel makes us bold: when the new day dawns, the tomb is empty.

Dare I say it? I believe in the resurrection of the body.

The Spirituality of Being in the Zone

I was delighted (and a little surprised) to read an article in the Washington Post this morning that addressed a really problematic religious practice, and ended up not reducing it or dismissing it, but complexifying it, allowing it to gain nuance and texture. The article was entitled, "You've Gotta Have Faith: Colorado Rockies at Play in the Fields of the Lord." It made note of the Rockies players who cross themselves on the field, point to heaven after a success, or wear crosses with their uniforms. It also mentioned the team's supposedly "Christian" code of conduct. But instead of scoffing at how silly it is to claim that God would be on the side of the Rockies (or how absurd it would be to imagine God being against the Red Sox!) the writer pushed on to acknowledge that teams do have experiences of being "in the zone". That, even more than winning, feels to many like a religious experience.

I know exactly what he's saying, and I've felt it myself, running or preaching or doing other activities where I get into a state of flow. In fact, I once preached a sermon where I claimed that seeing Sara Hughes win the gold medal in figure skating in 2004 was like seeing the Kingdom of God come to earth. For a few minutes, she broke through to the other side.

Still, for what it's worth, I'm praying for the Red Sox.

Thinking About Bodies...

I went to see Annie Leibovitz's photos at the Corcoran yesterday with Jan. Now I can't stop thinking about bodies.

Annie Leibovitz is famous for her dramatic portraits of celebrities, often staged with props (like a portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio with a swan wrapped gracefully around his neck) or in the midst of some kind of staged setting (like her famous portrait of Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk). But what struck me as soon as I walked into the exhibit at the Corcoran was not the theatricality of her portraits, but their physicality.

Right off, there is a stunning photo of dancer Bill T. Jones leaping, naked, against a stark white backdrop. But the photo also shows what stands behind the white paper--an urban rooftop with girders and bricks, their solidity as powerful a part of the image as Jones' grace. Then, turn the corner and you meet Leibovitz's mother, a sturdy, aging woman, dancing at the beach in a sensible bathing suit, her leg high in the air. A photo of her father and brother, also in swimsuits, grinning with their arms crossed in front of their chests, somehow exudes the same physical energy. A note nearby quotes Leibovitz as saying her whole family shares a kind of "physical vitality".

And then, suddenly, you can see it everywhere. Not just the dancers, and not just the criminally beautiful Demi Moore in her famous pregnant portrait. My favorite photo in the exhibit was a portrait of writer Eudora Welty, taken when must have been in her late 80's, shows her holding her coat closed with one hand and gripping the arm of her chair with the other. The energy in her hands is as clearly portrayed in the photo as the intelligence in her face.

Clearly, Annie Leibovitz knows and honors the vitality of the body. She knows how we live, not just as minds or as spirits, but as bodies. We show up to the world in our bodies, and we age and get sick and die in our bodies. Those photos are in the exhibit too, unflinching in the knowledge that bodies can torture us. They carry pain and trauma as well as exuberant passion.

I want to be a Christian, to be a pastor, with that insight. Ours is an incarnational faith--we dare to proclaim that God has been made known to the world in a body, one that grew and experienced pleasure and suffered and died. And one that rose again--somehow transformed, glorified, but still a body. But so often we think our ways out of the challenge of that story. It's easier to talk about ideas, beliefs, values, easier to relate to each other that way, easier to relate to God that way.

I want to show up to the world like people show up to Annie Leibovitz--alive and present down to my fingertips. I want to show up to God that way, because I know that I have seen God show up to me in my body, in the bodies of others, embodied in the world.

"That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body."
-Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

The Key to the Entire Bible

When I was a senior in high school, applying to colleges, my mother paid for me to have a meeting with the guidance counselor of the private school in our neighborhood. She wanted to have someone read my application essays who had a better eye for what the Ivy League was looking for than she thought the guidance counselor of my public high school had.

I remember feeling kind of resentful of having to go to that meeting, but it ended up being incredibly instructive. I didn't learn that much about writing an application essay (she read through what I wrote, made a couple of grammar corrections and pronounced it acceptable). Rather, she told me something about the Bible which has affected the way I read it ever since.

My essay was about learning something through a struggle--isn't that what all college application essays are about? After reading it, the guidance counselor looked up and said, "Ah yes, this is a Genesis 32 story." I was quite surprised, and immediately started to worry that she meant I was going to have to write a different essay, something I really didn't want to do. She took my blank look as permission to continue. "You know," she said, "the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. That's the key to the entire Bible."

I didn't know. I had never heard the story (despite having been in Sunday school for many years and gotten confirmed in my Presbyterian church) and I had no idea what it meant to say that story was the key to the entire Bible. She might have explained, but if she did, it didn't stick with me. Rather, her comment provoked me to go read the story on my own and figure out what she meant.

I've mused over that comment for over 20 years now. At first, I figured she meant the Bible was about the clash between human will and divine will. That probably reflected my own experience as an older teenager, when I felt like everything in the universe was designed to prohibit me from doing what I wanted to do. Later, I began to read the story as about covenant. Each party struggles to extract some blessing, and each loses something turn. Or maybe the story is about forgiveness? That's where Jacob is headed, after all. But before he can reconcile with his brother, he has to come face to face with God who will both wound him and give him a blessing.

Or maybe its about all of these things. The one thing that I know about the story is that it is a struggle. It's a fight where one party doesn't overwhelm the other. To say that this is the key to the entire Bible is to say that the Bible is not about (or not only about) submission to God. It's about engagement with God, and the wounds and blessings that result.

I sent a note out to the KC email announcements list with a preview of Sunday's service, and Kathy wrote back with another spin on the same passage. She had been searching the web for interpretations of Genesis 32, and found a delightful essay by my friend, Mary Luti, who writes about how God "forever ambushes our lives with new chances". Kathy wrote, "even when I've said "no" "no" "no" so many times, those new chances from God keep on popping up when I least expect it - and I have to make split-second decisions to act on them, or not. Isn't that really our job in this relationship with God? To see, to recognize the new chances that God puts in our path, and to take them!"

More on the passage in tomorrow's sermon!

Faith, Babylon and Iran

There are a variety of way to judge the “success” of a sermon. Sometimes I consider whether anyone has started to cry; sometimes I check to see if anyone remember the subject of the sermon the following Sunday (that is usually humbling). But I think the best measure of whether or not you hit the nail on the head as a preacher is to see if anyone leave the service agitated. Unsettled. And the person its probably most important to unsettle is yourself.

That’s what happened last Sunday. I preached on the passage in Jeremiah where God tells the people in exile in Babylon to plant gardens, build houses and have babies. I talked about how easy it is to root our faith in the future and in the past, and how hard it is to make faith a functioning part of our life in the present. Afterwards, and for several days following, people told me I had “touched a nerve” for them. They left worship feeling agitated.

So did I, incidentally. I keep musing about what it means to engage my faith in the present moment. I realize that I’ve done a lot more thinking about disengagement as a spiritual value. After all, if we’re living in a sick, broken and corrupt culture, isn’t withdrawl the holiest option? Shouldn’t we step back and form a community which stands out as an alternative to the world around us?

But on Sunday, I somehow convinced myself that the Word from God that Jeremiah relayed to the Israelites in Babylon might just be the Word from God to me, here and now. And believe it or not, that has me thinking about Iran again.

Back at the end of September, a small group of us from KC spent the evening talking about the relationship between the US and Iran. All of us were anxious about the inflammatory statements being made by both governments. All of us had the sense that the next war was already being planned. We remembered the amazing amount of organizing and protest worldwide in advance of the start of the current Iraq war, and we expressed a sense of helplessness to prevent a war that we believed would be truly disasterous for all parties.

Then we started thinking. What would we do if we believed that we could make a difference? We could engage our own fears and look to dispel them. How do we do that? We could learn about Iran, someone suggested. We could work on deepening our understanding and appreciation of Islam and of Middle Eastern culture. We could build connections with individual Iranians—here in the U.S. and in Iran.

How do we do that? Well, once we started talking we could think of a whole number of ways. Several people in the group had neighbors from Iran. We have connections with local mosques. We started planning an evening of hospitality at our church that could perhaps lead to friendships and connections, even in Iran. We left the church that night feeling a tiny bit hopeful.

We’ve been nudging along on that dream for the past few weeks, and my irritation with Jeremiah (and with God) has got me working on it again. It feels like engagement in a deeply broken current moment that isn’t just wishful and isn’t just cynical. It feels like faith that lives and breathes in the present.

Being a "200 Level" Church

"Yours is kind of a 200-level church," my mom concluded after her first visit to KC. She was making reference to the way college courses are often classified: beginning level classes are 100-level, but 200-level classes require some kind of prerequisite. Those classes are for people who have already been exposed to the topic, have some background in the area of study, and are interested in going deeper.

There's some obvious reasons why my mom would make this assessment of our community. For one thing, there are a number of people in our community who are "recovering" from their childhoods or young adulthoods in some other church or tradition. We've got former Roman Catholics, evangelicals, Mennonites and Christian Scientists, each with their own story of why they left and why they aren't going back. In addition, there are a number of people around KC who have been engaged in a very serious way in their spiritual journey for many years--people who have been trained as pastoral counselors or spiritual directors, people who have gone on many retreats and pilgrimages, people who read about spirituality and biblical scholarship and Christian theology for fun.

So there are a lot of people who see KC as a "next step" in their spiritual journey. They didn't start that journey here, but they came to KC because it seemed like the kind of place that would help them go further.

I'm proud to be part of a community like this. It makes me feel like I can go deeper with my teaching and preaching, and there will be plenty of people who can keep up. What's more, I find it very encouraging to be around people who are farther along the path than I am. It makes me want to keep walking with Jesus. It helps me stay unstuck.

But there was a part of my mom's comment that gave me pause when she first said it. I wondered, are there "pre-requisites" to being a part of our community? There aren't any explicit pre-requisites. We're a pretty friendly bunch, and when you walk into our barn, we are really good at welcoming you, whoever you are. But I wonder if there are implicit prerequisites? If you are a brand-new Christian, or if you aren't a Christian at all, and you walked into KC, would you have a sense of stepping into a 200 level class without having had the introduction? Would you get drawn into the journey by hearing about ours, or would you end up feeling left behind?

These questions re-surfaced for me last week at the Emergent Gathering, and they seem to have been on the minds of other people as well. Is Emergent a 200-level organization, or even a 300-level one? If it is, what about the people who step into the conversation without having done any background work? Is it really right to invite such people in to every event, or would it be better to establish a beginner track and an advanced track? If there are too many beginners, won't all the advanced people lose interest and leave?

I'm not sure if organizations like Emergent work the same way that churches like KC work, but I imagine there are some parallels. And my experience at KC has led me to think that the whole idea of entry-level religion is not nearly as helpful as one might think. I think we often underestimate how much preparation God has done in our hearts and souls before we even step into a church, a conference or a conversation. My experience at KC has taught me that a huge amount of growth can happen in someone when the moment is finally right. Maybe the people who stick around our community for more than a week or two are people who are ready to grow. But that's a pre-requisite I can live with. You don't have to be there already, but you do have to be willing to walk.

Having enough high intentional Christians around this place means that this place will never be defined as entry-level only. But I'm okay with that. An easy-to-follow, easy-to-understand version of the Christian journey doesn't catch a person up in the same way as the real thing. If it's shallow, it usually feels that way, even to a newbie.

What's more, I have been struck time and again by how much the "advanced" Christians at KC get out of talking to someone who is much newer on the spiritual journey. This happened last spring when John Lobell and I taught a class on evil to an amazingly mixed group. We all learned from each other in that group--we learned different things from different people, but we all were learning.

So while there are many other things that we don't really have a handle on at KC, this one feels about right. The high level of intentional spiritual journeying in this community makes it a good entry-level congregation, as strange as that may sound. Our experience has been instructive for me as I continue to engage in Emergent Village's visioning process.

Being Brave in Santa Fe, part 2

So, the second day I was in New Mexico (Wednesday of last week) I woke up at 4:00 am in the morning, local time, which meant I actually slept in a little according to my internal clock. I dozed for another hour or so, but by 5:00 am I was ready to get moving.

I was sleeping in a tent in a campground where I was the sole inhabitant. Maybe it was because of Georgia O'Keeffe's inspiration, or maybe it was because I had made it through the night without being eating by coyotes, but I was feeling braver than usual. So I washed up and drove into Santa Fe in search of the Atalaya Mountain trail which the website I had printed out assured me was one of the most popular short hikes in the area.

So I found the trailhead, found where to park the car and hiked the three miles up to the peak at 9,100 feet. I looked around and thanked God for the place and the day and my life and the world, ate some trail mix, called Dan, and then I hiked back down. I never saw another person the whole morning.

Maybe that doesn't seem like a huge big deal. But for me, it took a lot of guts to do it totally by myself. I grew up in a family that liked to camp and hike, but I never liked it much and completely quit when I was 12. When I met Dan (almost 20 years ago!) I realized that he loved hiking so much that if I was going to love him (and if he was going to love me) I was going to have to go along. We hiked in Scotland and in Switzerland and in New Hampshire, and sometimes it was great, but a lot of the times I was cursing him in my mind for having dragging me along, too fast and too far.

When we got married, Dan's sister Carla joked with me that our vows should read, "I, Heather, agree to go up any peak in any weather, and do solemnly swear to take all the spur trails and still beat book time." I laughed when she said that--sort of.

Kids turned out to be the solution to our hiking issues. They loved to hike, but for a long time they couldn't hike very far or very fast. I finally found my natural pace, and then, as they grew and sped up little by little, so did I.

When I reached the peak of Atalaya, I was at first full of self-congratulations. Finally, I did it on my own! No one made me, no one dragged me or pushed me. I came on my own. Aren't I brave!

I took out my cell phone to call Dan, just to so I could crow about my accomplishment. But somehow, when he picked up, I found myself saying "Thank you!" instead. Yeah, I walked up the mountain myself. I didn't do it to prove anything to him. But I did it because for 20 years, he has loved me and loved mountains, and somehow, in the process, my heart expanded.

So this is who I am, I thought as I walked down. I'm brave and confident and independent. And I'm connected and appreciative and loved. Both. And. Thank you, Jesus!

Being Brave in Santa Fe

Last week, I went to New Mexico from Tuesday through Thursday to be a part of Emergent Village's "Vision Team" which met during the Emergent Gathering in Glorieta. I've been to most states in the US thanks to my parents' fondness for car trips, but I'd never been to New Mexico. So although I knew that there was warm, welcoming, and fascinating community waiting for me at the conference center, I lingered a bit in Santa Fe on Tuesday morning after I arrived. I found a coffee shop, had lunch, and then made my way over to the Georgia O'Keeffe museum.

I wandered my way around the small collection, watched part of the introductory video, and then looked around a bit more. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself tearing up and trying not to attract attention. I was just overwhelmed by the museum's testimony to one woman's bravery. O'Keeffe was not only one of the first women to paint abstract paintings in the U.S. She was one of the first people in the U.S. to do so. A lot of people hated what she did, and it was hard to do, and hard to keep doing, but she kept at it, and her vision just became bolder and more revelatory as time went on.

But her life wasn't without complication. She fell in love with Arthur Stieglitz, who clearly understood the beauty of her soul and her body. He took some incredibly sensual photographs for her and displayed them, and from that point on, everyone saw O'Keeffe's paintings as thinly-veiled sexual iconography. It was impossible for a flower to just be a flower, and if it was something more, then it was wild and wicked and naughty. And it wasn't quite as great.

For a while, O'Keeffe retreated. She painted pears which were so simply and clearly pears that no one could accuse her of trying to imbue them with her supposedly pervasive sexuality. But she couldn't stay in retreat, because she simply didn't see the world as others did. In fact, she claimed that she painted things exactly as she saw them, and when finished, others looked at her work and called it abstraction. The paintings from the end of her life are perhaps more rooted and structural, but just as bold, just as brave as ever.

How does a woman become that brave? The last time that question struck me was in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. My kids were pulling at me to move on, but I stood in front of the display of Janis Joplin's clothes and albums in absolute awe. Janis was another totally brave, totally original artist. But she flamed out much earlier than O'Keeffe, killing herself first little by little and then completely. Both women were geniuses, but one was an addict with all the lies and falsehoods that go with that, and the other allowed herself to be seen and known and loved.

I thought and talked about a lot of other things in New Mexico, but the questions that started in the O'Keeffe museum are the ones that stayed with me. Did O'Keeffe succeed because of Stieglitz or despite him? Did he make her career or almost destroy it? Those questions can't really be answered--this relationship had both a gift and a cost, like all relationships have.

Stieglitz didn't make Georgia O'Keeffe brave, but her saw her bravery and loved it, and made sure that she didn't play to an empty house. She didn't need to be known and understood by everyone, but it clearly made an enormous difference in her life (and his) that she was known and understood by someone.

We'll never step out on our own if we need to get permission from the whole world first, but in the end, we aren't ever really brave on our own. As a Christian, and as a Christian leader, that insight feels like an important one.