Tuesday, September 22, 2015

where my trust is without borders


Here's where I have to admit that I don’t find myself listening to a lot of “Christian” music, particularly contemporary Christian music. I find that it often feels shallow or forced. Plus I tend to agree with Frederick Buechner that “life itself is sacramental” and with Anis Mojgani that “every breath we swallow is worship.” With this in mind, one of my favorite worship songs is Florence + the Machine’s “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful,” and looking up at the heavens and singing it with her at Bonnaroo was a profoundly sacred experience for me.

Florence killing it at Bonnaroo

One exception to this is Hillsong United's "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail). I've listened to it countless times in the last few months, and it still moves me every time. Here's a lovely YouTube version with lyrics for you to enjoy. If you read my sermon from Growing in Grace, you'll notice that the lyrics echo a lot of the sentiments I described. I pull strength from it and use it as my prayer when I'm unable to find the words on my own.





Monday, September 21, 2015

prone to wander

Last Sunday I was commissioned at All Saints during the morning service and gave a sermon during Growing in Grace, the informal evening gathering. Both experiences were incredibly meaningful and memorable, and I'm so grateful to Tom Macfie, Melissa Hartley, and Rob McAlister for making everything come together.
I wanted to go ahead and share my message from Sunday night here. Talking at Growing in Grace had to be one of the most intimidating experiences I've had, but having some friendly faces in the crowd to support me helped so much. I'm glad I pushed myself to do something outside my comfort zone. That is where growth happens, where we find grace and find God.

When Rob told me the theme for Growing in Grace this semester is “Prone to Wander,” I almost had to laugh. Not only is "Come Thou Fount" my all-time favorite hymn, the theme of wandering is just too obvious in how it relates to my life right now, as I prepare to wander all the way to Cape Town, SA to serve as a missionary through the Episcopal Church.

But we are all prone to wander. While you’re at Sewanee maybe you’ll study abroad, hike the Perimeter Trail, go on an outreach or SOP trip, or get involved in the local community… But how can we wander for God rather than away from God? How can we use our wandering to grow closer to him?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his reflections on morning that each day “is long enough to find God or to lose him” - are we seeking God each day? Are we asking ourselves where we saw God today? Are we keeping in mind the things of God or are we more like Peter, focused on human concerns?

As we venture, are we seeking God where we go? Often we only seek God in the places we expect to find him - maybe just in church on a Sunday. Or maybe we imagine that we are taking God with us into the world, or we simply wait for him to show up and knock us down. But if we enter a place with the knowledge that God is already there, that he has already been at work, if we search intentionally for signs of that, perhaps we’ll encounter him in a new way, perhaps we’ll get to know him on a deeper level.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, she devotes a chapter to reverence. She writes that “you can learn as much about God from a love affair or a wildflower as you can from knowing the Ten Commandments by heart.” We simply have to commit ourselves to what she calls the “Practice of Paying Attention” as we wander about.

Jesus asks the crowd what good it is for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul. This is often interpreted with a sense of finality, but there are small ways we gain the world and forfeit our souls each and every day. We forfeit our souls when we fail to hear them, acknowledge them, and nourish them. We forfeit our souls when we strive more for acceptance than for authenticity. We forfeit our souls when we focus too much on human concerns, when we allow our anxiety and fear and doubt to distract us. We forfeit our souls when we forget that those around us have souls as well. We forfeit them when we imagine that God sees the world the way that we do, rather than challenging ourselves to see the world the way God does.

Your soul is the very essence of who you are, it’s the purpose for which you are created. It is a unique reflection of the image of God. Theologian Howard Thurman refers to it as the sound of genuine in each of us. In his baccalaureate address at Spelman he describes gaining the world and forfeiting our souls in this way: “You may be famous. You may be whatever the other ideals are which are a part of this generation, but you know you don’t have the foggiest notion of who you are, where you are going, what you want.” 

Are we wandering in ways that bring us closer to the people we were created to be? Are our wanderings providing enough stillness to listen to the sound of the genuine in ourselves? Or do they serve as distractions, drawing us more toward others’ expectations of us than to who we really are?

We also must take the time to listen for the sound of the genuine in others. When we forget that those around us have souls, we lose ours as well. We are bound together in our common humanity, created by the same God and all in his image. In our baptismal vows, we promise to seek Christ in all persons. Sometimes we forget. Sometimes in our wanderings, we find ourselves cut off by another car on the interstate. And then we forget that the car has a driver and the driver has a soul and we curse them with the same mouth we use to worship their Creator.

Other times as we wander, we simply fail to notice people or take them for granted. We don’t say thank you or ask how they are and wait for the answer.

And other times in our travels, we treat people as a commodity. We go near or far away to serve others and we forget that they exist for more than to make us feel good about ourselves. We forget that children are more than a new profile picture or instagram post. We forget that we can learn something from everyone. 

Max Warren warns in these interactions that “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we may find ourselves treading on men’s dreams. More serious still, we may forget that God was here before our arrival.”

I think another way we gain the world and lose our souls is through refusal to be vulnerable, to admit the places where we struggle. We allow others to put us on a pedestal. I’ve definitely felt like people have tried to do that to me since I've announced my plans to serve as a missionary, but I don't want it to be that way.

A lot of people have commented on how strong my faith must be to take this leap. But I find myself reminded of another time Peter is rebuked by Jesus, another time he fails to keep divine things in mind. In Matthew we are told the story of Jesus walking on the water. He's told his disciples to go ahead in the boat without him, and they're way out when they see this shadowy figure moving toward them. So clearly they are freaking out, and Jesus is like, "It's cool, y'all. It's just me, casually walking on water, nbd or anything." Peter is eager to leap out of the boat, bidding Jesus to call him out onto the water. It’s hard not to be impressed by that level of faith, right? Except that as soon as the wind began to blow, Peter gets scared. He loses faith, and he begins to sink. Jesus calls Peter, the rock, “you of little faith” here.

I am just like Peter. Sure I’ll take those leaps of faith. I’ll wander to new places, I’ll immerse myself, I’ll walk out onto the water. But I lose sight of God once I’m there, and I start to drown.

In fact, I do this time and time again. I did it when I first arrived at Sewanee, struggling to find my place here and ready to give up and transfer halfway into the semester. I’m so glad I didn’t because I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without this community. Sewanee was a major part of my life and faith journey. And after graduating and returning to the mountain as an Americorps VISTA, I once again doubted a decision I had been so sure was right. For the first couple of months I allowed anxiety to distract me from that initial sense of purpose, and I neglected the self-care I desperately needed.

And now, before I’ve even arrived in South Africa, I find myself fighting that same anxiety and doubt. I momentarily forget that initial sense of calling I felt, instead focused on my own fears and insecurities. I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into, rather than having faith that God will continue to guide me. I focus on human concerns rather than the things of God. I've spent an enormous amount of time and energy making lists, buying things, packing, all in an effort to be prepared when we all know that I can't possibly be truly prepared for this experience. But I know that I don’t want to gain the world - with its false senses of security and certainty - and lose my soul. I know that if I wander prayerfully and intentionally, things will fall into place and begin to make sense. And I know that I don’t have to do it alone, not only is God with me, but he has placed some incredible people in my life to offer support and love and encouragement.

I want to leave you with a prayer by Thomas Merton that has gotten me through a lot of these moments and I'm sure will help me through many more to come. I think it is perfect to keep in mind as we wander, to center ourselves on the things of God rather than the things of men.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Saturday, September 12, 2015

update!

I officially have a departure date set for September 23!

Last week I had to visit New York City again to apply for my Visa at the South African consulate. Everything seemed to be in order, so keep your fingers crossed that my visa arrives in time!

While I was there, I got to meet with Holly Milburn, the former YASCer who had my position with HOPE Africa two years ago. I'm so grateful to Holly for passing on her knowledge and experience to me. To see pictures and read more about her time there, check out her YASC blog here.

I'm so humbled by everyone's generosity. I was worried that I got a late start to fundraising, but in six weeks I've received roughly $8000! A sincere and heartfelt thank you to those who have donated - I couldn't do this without you. Donations will continue to be accepted even after I leave, and I'll be sure to update everyone when I reach my goal.

I couldn't get the link to work properly on my original attempt at a donor calendar, but here is a new one. If you previously donated and didn't claim a day, feel free to do that. Or if you claimed one and don't see it marked, please accept my apologies and correct my mistake. The template is courtesy of Naomi Cunningham, who has already begun her YASC year serving at the American Cathedral in Paris.

Tomorrow morning I'll be commissioned at All Saints Chapel in Sewanee, and I'll also be speaking at its informal Sunday night service Growing in Grace. Look for a post about that soon!

Just 11 days away - the countdown begins!