God Stuff

My Sabbath

The author during her first August in the Hamptons, 1971.
The author during her first August in the Hamptons, 1971.

All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the thought and appreciation of what this day may bring to us should be ever present in our minds. For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.

—Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Sabbath

IF THE SEVENTH day is the Sabbath of my week, August is the Sabbath of my year. For most of my life, August has meant vacation. As a child, my parents would pack my brother and me into the station wagon, head to the ferry dock on the Connecticut side of Long Island Sound, and float across the water to the Hamptons, where my mother’s best friend, Patti, lived.

August meant long days in the sun at the beach and long dinners around Patti’s table with fresh zucchini, snap peas, tomatoes, and corn from the farm stand down the road. Some days—some of the most magical of my childhood—before dinner, Patti would hand me a little metal bucket and lead me across her gravel road to a bramble-laden field where we’d pick blueberries.

Nearly 40 years on, the muscle-memories I have of plucking those indigo gems from their prickly rests have not faded a bit. While I usually collect my blueberries these days from Trader Joe’s, I still pick through the berries as Patti taught me to, looking for the few errant green stems left behind by the processing plant.

For me, there is a palpable spiritual connection between the slow rhythm of August and the gentle beckoning of the Sabbath—a sacred time to slow down and realign myself with my family and my Creator, to rest, replenish, and allow myself to be inspired.

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Chasing the Wild Goose

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.

—From “Wild Geese”
by Mary Oliver

Late June. School’s out. The days are long, their pace slowed—languid and languorous, in the best sense of those descriptors. Could there be a better time to embark on a wild goose chase? I think not.

As luck would have it, just after the summer solstice this June, fans of such adventures—devotees of that sacred, untamable squawking bird—will gather on a farm in North Carolina for a weekend’s worth of music, art, the exchange of ideas, and the pursuit of the Spirit at the (aptly named) Wild Goose Festival.

The fest, a cousin of the U.K.’s venerable Greenbelt festival now in its second year on this side of the pond, takes its name from the Irish An Gé Fiáin (“the wild goose,” pronounced “On Geh Fee-an”), which some folks believe is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit traceable to ancient Celtic Christianity.

The idea (and it is a provocative one) is that rather than a dove, the Holy Spirit is more like one of those big, gray geese—wild, unruly, coming and going as it pleases, announcing its arrival with honking, bluster, and ample attitude.

Rather than the gentle dove, this (alleged) ancient Celtic image of the Holy Spirit is raucous—as uncaged as the wind that lifts its muscular wings.

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'Why I Hate Religion, But Love YouTube'

Early this year I visited the Episcopal parish outside Chicago where my family and I used to worship before we moved to California a few years ago. About a dozen 12-to-14-year-olds gathered in a classroom used for daycare during the rest of the week. They pulled out cushions and gathered in a circle on the floor, falling over each other like puppies and talking nonstop.

The lead teacher began with prayer and then asked the kids to share about the previous week. For the better part of 45 minutes, the kids shared their triumphs and trials—a Spanish skit due in the morning that several were dreading, a classmate who was injured during a lacrosse game, a sick neighbor, a good grade on a science test, an upcoming three-day weekend, etc.

As each of the young teens shared, the others attempted to listen with care, but their boundless energy (and ample hormones) often erupted into a cacophony of asides, flirty joking, and epic fidgeting. It was exactly how you’d imagine an assemblage of a dozen junior highers might look and sound. Barely controlled chaos.

That is, until the teacher pulled out his laptop computer and described a video he was about to play called “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” The four-minute video was created by and features 22-year-old Jefferson Bethke, a spoken word artist, eloquently voicing his frustrations with organized religion. He says in part:

What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion? ... I mean, if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars? Why does it build huge churches but fails to feed the poor? ... See, the problem with religion is it never gets to the core. It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores ...

As the video began to play via YouTube on the teacher’s laptop, the room grew still. The kids were absolutely rapt. You could have heard a pin drop.

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Waiting to Exhale

Lately, I’ve been holding my breath. It’s actually something I inherited from my mother’s side of the family. Many of my female relatives on the Irish side of the clan have this habit of holding our breath when we’re talking—or rather, listening—or concentrating, or thinking. And especially when we’re anxious.

Stress makes many people turn to comfort food, while others lose their appetite. Some folks chew their nails; some look for relief in the bottom of a cocktail glass; still others lose sleep or sleep too much. Me? I forget to breathe.

When I was a member of a college theater ensemble, our director often focused on the importance of breathing, not only for our physical persons but also for our souls. In the Bible, the Greek word used for “breath,” pneuma, is also used to describe the Spirit—our spirits and the Holy Spirit.

Breathing is, of course, essential to life. The air that moves through our lungs sustains us. But the Spirit also imbues us with eternal life and the true sustenance of our earthly lives.

Before rehearsals or performances, our college theater director would lead us through a series of warm-up exercises, all of them focused on breath. We began by lying flat on our backs with our eyes closed, letting go of all of the physical and emotional tensions we’d brought with us into the room. As we centered ourselves, body and mind, we’d pray the “Jesus Prayer,” silently. It’s a simple yet powerful prayer that comes from the practice of hesychasm, or contemplative prayer, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

It goes like this: (Breathing in) “Jesus Christ.” (Breathing out) “Son of God.” (Breathing in) “Have mercy on me.” (Breathing out) “A sinner.”

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A Stand for Freedom

In July, as Americans we celebrate our freedom. It's a word and a concept that many of us toss about without much thought, but on the occasion of the independence hard-won by the United States some 235 years ago, perhaps it is appropriate to give it closer inspection.

Freedom means the "absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action," according to Merriam-Webster. It also connotes the ability to speak frankly and honestly, a certain boldness, and a political right. I would argue that it is moreover a spiritual right, inalienable and God-given.

Not unlike the Jewish celebration of Passover, which commemorates God's deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt -- the Hebrew word for which means "narrow place" -- on Independence Day we remember our country's deliverance from the clutches of tyranny’s oppressive fist. Still, there are myriad things, personally and institutionally, that threaten to keep us bound in narrow places of fear and human-made judgment from which God is ever ready to rescue us.

Earlier this year, a group of alumni from my alma mater, Wheaton College in Illinois, took a bold stand for freedom and justice when they launched One Wheaton, an organization dedicated to showing solidarity and love for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students at the institution whose motto boasts that it is "For Christ and His Kingdom."

While in the evangelical Christian milieu Wheaton is hardly the most conservative and clamped down of places, for gay students and those wrestling with their sexuality, it can feel more like a gulag than the promised land. By and large, evangelical Christianity as a culture is not the most welcoming place for gays and lesbians. Wheaton, historically at least, is no different.

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July 2011 Sojourners
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Mustard Seed Power

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." His sacred words came to mind on a recent family trip to ski in the San Bernadino mountains.

Mine is a family of recent vintage. Last year my husband and I adopted our son, Vasco, age 11. The "ski week" trip was our first official vacation as a family. Even though my son hails from the sub-Saharan African nation of Malawi, where snow is a phenomenon only seen in movies, last winter Vasco's uncle gave him a snowboard and he took to the alpine sport like a native snow bird. So this year, when it came time for his winter school break, Vasco was eager to take his board back to the slopes.

My husband and I know how to ski, but it had been many years since either of us had dusted off the two planks and taken them for a spin down the mountain. On that first trip up the mountain in the three-person lift, my anxiety swelled and my knuckles grew whiter as I peered down at the ski trails below us. As the lift rose higher and higher, I began to panic. Had we bitten off more than we could chew? The trail we'd chosen was marked as a beginner/intermediate slope, but it sure didn't look like one from my bird’s eye view. Visions of the three of us tumbling down the long side of the mountain danced in my head.

All of us managed to dismount the lift without breaking any limbs. That was a good start. Still, I worried that we'd never make it back to the base of the mountain in one piece. We stopped at the top of the mountain -- majestic views surrounding us on all sides with a white tableau that reminded Vasco of C.S. Lewis' Narnia -- to check the trail map one last time, before pointing our boots downward and pushing off together.

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Kennedy and Obama: The Faith Question

Jan. 20, 2011, marks the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, our nation's first (and still only) Roman Catholic head of state. At the time, Kennedy's Catholicism was a matter of great public debate and, in some quarters, great alarm.

What did it mean to the presidency to have a "papist" sitting in the Oval Office? Would his first allegiance be to the pope rather than the American people? Collective hand-wringing ensued. But no one doubted whether Kennedy was what he said he was: a Catholic.

Half a century later, interest in the president’s spirituality has not waned. The religious predilections of our current president, Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president -- and the only U.S. commander in chief to have familial ties, however tenuous and nominal they may be, to the Islamic tradition -- is perpetual fodder for heated debates in the public square.

But something has changed since Hatless Jack took the oath of office. Today, some don't believe the president when he says what he believes about God. It is a troubling progression.

Nearly seven years ago, I sat down with Obama, then a young state senator running for national office for the first time, for a lengthy interview about his faith. When my "spiritual profile" of Obama ran in the Chicago Sun-Times, it was greeted with modest interest, mostly for the novelty of a Democratic candidate speaking at length about religion. To date, that interview remains the most exhaustive Obama has granted publicly about his faith.

When a Pew poll last summer showed that nearly one in five Americans believes Obama is a Muslim (rather than the Christian he actually is), a virtual tidal wave of renewed interest in that old interview hit my email inbox.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2011
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Together in Imperfection

For more than 15 years, I didn't go to church (except for lots of visits in my professional capacity). When I was in my early 20s, the Episcopal church I attended regularly split. Factions formed, sides were taken, harsh words were spoken. A spiritual tug of war ensued and left the community in tatters. It was awful, traumatic -- the worst that church has to offer.

I love Jesus and all that he told us to do and be while he walked among us in the flesh. But I no longer trusted his followers to not behave appallingly. I'd had enough of Christians shooting their own. So I left.

In hindsight, that was pretty shortsighted. We are believers, but we are also human. We stumble, fall, and drag others down with us. We wallow in our own hypocrisy and look to fellow Christians rather than the One we should emulate as the only perfect example of how to be fully human and completely faithful.

After more than a decade of lurking in the narthex, a couple of years ago I tiptoed into the sanctuary of a small Episcopal parish in suburban Chicago and found safe harbor. I was surprised to learn that this parish had suffered a split several years earlier, too. But what remained were not sharp edges and bitterness from the acrimony that had shattered the community like a cheap mirror. Instead, I found the light of God's love refracted even more beautifully by the cracks and imperfections.

Last summer, my family relocated from Chicago to Southern California and had to leave our beloved church behind. But we found a more perfectly imperfect spiritual home here in Laguna Beach -- a faith community called Little Church by the Sea. Whatever its quaint moniker conjures in your mind -- a certain sweetness and humility; a groovy, laid-back, welcoming place where the pastors wear flip-flops and the worship team is a bluegrass band -- is right on.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2010
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The Dragonfly Abides

Tombolombo. That is the word for “dragonfly” in Chichewa, my son Vasco’s native language. It was one of the first words Vasco taught me when he came from his native Malawi to live with us while he underwent lifesaving heart surgery in 2009.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2010
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Why Character Matters

Christianity promises, by grace and through faith, that believers will spend eternity with God, in paradise. But many of us believers have become so obsessed with who gets into heaven—and who doesn’t—and how, that we have missed a central question of the gospel: How are we to live this life, here and now?

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Sojourners Magazine June 2010
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