Tag Archives: women

“How I Got Over:” Mahalia Jackson helps us do 2022

Singing is one of the most integrative activities we can do. It uses heart, soul, mind and strength to express our desire and open us to receive good things from God and others. When we sing in a group (and we will again, some day) it is often a unitive experience. So let’s sing with Mahalia Jackson . I think she can help with 2022.

When Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997 in the category of “Early Influences,” even their watered-down bio said her “voice hit audiences with the force of a hurricane.” That hurricane did not just emanate from her birthplace of New Orleans, it came from God and her own suffering. The opposite of a storm that knocks down, Mahalia is a storm that lifts up.

As such a faithful and troubled woman she is a great guide to yet another troubled year. Trouble and faith go together. We are all suffering the pandemic and the uncertainty of our politics. And Black people, in particular, are still suffering the burden of needing to “get over,” as institutions highlight their struggle and this week the media reports the instant barrage of defamation hurled at any prospective Black, woman Supreme Court justice.

Mahalia Jackson performing How I Got Over in the March for Jobs and Freedom on Washington DC.

When I remembered Mahalia Jackson last week on her death day (January 27) [song link], I was once again moved by her iconic rendition of “How I Got Over.” She most famously sang this song [song link] after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington in 1963. And she’s been singing it in my head and heart since last Thursday, which I greatly appreciate.

She wanted her music to be for everyone. She told a reporter, “I have hopes that my singing will break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and Black people in this country.” That’s a work for Jesus. People try to do it without Him, but they rarely get very far. Jackson took songs other people just sang and she filled them with spirit and The Spirit in a way that made them a force for good, and a force for change. When I listen to her, even now, after she’s been dead for fifty years, she changes me. She does me good.

A transformation meditation

That experience of transformation is why I wanted to remind you of her today and give us all a chance to lodge her song “How I Got Over” into some sturdy place in our memories. We can come back to places where we have met God again and again. Those places comfort our troubled souls; they give us a place to stand when we are under attack; and they create a solid place from which to launch into whatever will require our courage and passion. This song is such a place for me, maybe it will be for you, too.

Here are some annotated lyrics. My idea is to expand what the lyrics could mean for us and lead us into meditation as we face what we will face today. I think Mahalia Jackson intends to lead us through our deep struggle into a place where we give thanks. Just like she got over and is getting over, she wants us to  “get over” into our re-birthplace in Jesus. Let’s use the song for all it is worth.

How I got over
How did I make it over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over
How I made it over
Going on over all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

I don’t speak Jackson’s vernacular or sing well in her musical style. So what? I don’t think she cares, and neither should I. She is turning my heart toward wonder. That’s what she cares about and so should I. All day I am tempted to attend to the forces and voices that put me under their malign control; this song is about turning away from those powers and seeing what is good. The question is, “How did all this life happen and how does it keep happening? How did all this good happen? How did the Lord bring me to this place where I would be meditating on this song and looking for meaning and hope?” It is a wonder.

Tell me how we got over Lord
Had a mighty hard time coming on over
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did we make it over
Tell me how we got over Lord
I’ve been falling and rising all these years
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

When Jackson turns the subject to “we,” I think she is first referring to the Black struggle which she felt as an abandoned child in the Jim Crow South of her youth and then felt in new ways after she joined the “great migration” to Chicago where she struggled to survive. She’s singing about the terror of facing down white supremacy and the capricious violence of the United States as the Civil Rights movement progressed. “How did we get here telling our story on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial among all these politicians and movie stars? How did we stay so resilient and faithful though all our struggle, all our falling and rising?” It is a wonder.

It is a rich stanza full of Bible imagery. Jesus is falling and rising as we observe the stations of the cross on our way to our own death and rising with him. In like manner, the song alludes to the promise we will “get over” the Jordan River and into the promised land. Jesus is baptized into, identifies with, our sin and death in the Jordan. Like the Israelites passed over on dry land, we follow Jesus through death into life, a death now made impermanent by his gracious work. “How did we make it over?” Only by the Lord’s grace. It is a wonder.

So Mahalia unveils the wonder and invites us into it.

But, soon as I can see Jesus
The man that died for me
Man that bled and suffered
And he hung on Calvary

And I want to thank him for how he brought me
And I want to thank God for how he taught me
Oh thank my God how he kept me
I’m gonna thank him ’cause he never left me
Then I’m gonna thank God for  old time religion
And I’m gonna thank God for giving me a vision
One day, I’m gonna join the heavenly choir
I’m gonna sing and never get tired

We can use a song like we use an icon. It gives us a musical vision of Jesus and we experience that connection heart, soul, mind and strength. It is worth singing this song with Ms. Jackson enough times to feel it more than think it, sink into it and sense all the nuances and even beyond them — “Jesus brought me to this place, taught me, kept me, never left me.”

When she thanks God for “old time religion” it is not just religion that used to be popular but isn’t; I think she means the Spirit-filled experience that transcends time and culture. We are one with the first disciples of Jesus. Being in God’s presence gives us a vision beyond the boundaries of our humanity. As a result, we can let loose our innate imagination and  be part of the choir of all beings who see the face of God, however dimly, in this darkness. Let your tiredness lift as you tell it all to Jesus who walked with us and on our behalf in history and walks with us now.

Meditation that leads to connection is good for whatever ails us in this hard time! Sister Mahalia has led us to the altar, now she calls us to worship

And then I’m gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And I’m gonna shout all my trouble over
You know I’ve gotta thank God and thank him for being
So good to me, Lord yeah
How I made it over Lord
I had to cry in the midnight hour coming on over
But you know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

Tell me how I made it over Lord God Lord
Falling and rising all these years
You know my soul look back and wonder
How did I make it over

We are joining with the huge crowd John sees gathering from the four corner of the earth in the age to come.  From that place, we are looking back on all the trouble that is now over, all that crying in the midnight hour we had to endure. Looking back on what we’ve already gone through creates wonder — if we celebrate how we are alive and don’t fixate on how we’ve been dying. Try it. Maybe you can start a vision history in your “wonder journal.”

The Bible has a lot to say about the “midnight hour.” The first born are killed in Egypt before the slaves are set free at midnight. Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God in prison about midnight before they are miraculously released. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a great sermon about “A  Knock at Midnight.”  Through the vulnerable moments, sleepless, anxious moments, tell me Lord, “How did I make it? How can I believe I will make it right now when I still feel scared and ashamed, and when I am still threatened and scorned? But I do believe. Help me where I don’t.”

Mahalia puts on her new self like she belongs at the coronation.

I’m gonna wear a diadem
In that new Jerusalem
I’m gonna walk the streets of gold
It’s in that homeland of the soul
I’m gonna view the host in white
They’ve been traveling day and night
Coming up from every nation
They’re on their way to the great Coronation

Coming from the north, south, east, and west
They’re on their way to a land of rest
And then they’re gonna join the heavenly choir
You know we’re gonna sing and never get tired
And then we’re gonna sing somewhere ’round God altar
And then we’re gonna shout all our troubles over
You know we gotta thank God
Thank him for being so good to me

Rest in the “homeland of the soul” might feel hard to grasp, but we know what she is singing about. A little bit of that rest seems fleeting and even paltry, but how odd it is that such a little bit goes such a long way! We can’t forget about it and we long for rest for our souls all day.

I don’t know what I love more, the picture Jackson paints of the age to come, or the picture  I imagine of her in her diadem. Some people hear the lyric as “diamond dress,” which is also great. Everyone has traveled a long way, but here we all are. We are looking good, feeling happy, and dancing down the street in the New Jerusalem [like a NOLA funeral]. If you can’t sing this song, just play it, and let yourself move at least a little during this part. Feel at home in your new self and feel the energy of renewal remaking you. God is good to you. It is a wonder. “Maybe I should strut like the wonder I am!”

Now Mahalia goes into the part that probably made her famous. She started out calmly, but as the song goes on, she can’t help feeling it. She is not just performing it, she is inhabiting it. She is an incarnation and, as such, an invitation to everyone to enter in with all the gifts, services and energies we bring.

You know I come to thank God this evening
I come to thank him this evening
You know all, all night long God kept his angels watching over me
Early this morning, early this morning
God told his angel God said, “Touch her in my name”
God said, “Touch her in my name”

I rose this morning, I rose this morning, I rose this morning
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting
I feel like shouting, I just got to thank God, I just got to thank God
I just got to thank God, I just got to thank him
Thank God for being so good, God been good to me

I put this song up in some chat the other day and someone said, “That is a long song!” We’re mainly used to 2 1/2 minute pop songs and jingles. I said, “She can sing it all day and I will sing it with her.” Turning into “I just got to thank God” is a lot better than resenting some fragment from a 70’s song stuck in the crevices of my brain. Turning into thanks, feeling gladness well up, and letting it loose with a shout, a dance, a hug, or some tears is the kind of integration we need to open us up to wonder.

An angel wakes up Zechariah and Elijah in the old Testament. But I think this final picture Mahalia paints is about how we get over. Just like an angel apparently woke Jesus up from his slumber in death, just so will we be awakened on the last day. And as long as we are in the age before death, that is every day. Every day is as good as our last day. Every day of life is gift. We are raised up into it. Relying on an angel to follow orders to “Touch her in my name” is a wonder. I want to live constantly touched by God.

I pray for us all to wake up today touched by Mahalia Jackson who is much like an angel sent to open us to new life. She was a struggling, Black woman who went with her gift in faith and kept turning away from her trauma, and then turned others away from theirs. I hope this meditation helped you turn away from yours and into wonder.

Who Are You? — In honor of Teresa de Jesus

Tomorrow is the day we remember Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). Visit Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body for more.

The famous Teresa was a reformer from the center of Spain, along with her protégé, St. John of the Cross. In response to the radicals of the Protestant Reformation, which was like an earthquake in the Catholic Church of their time, those two wanted to return their monastic order to the ways to the hermits who founded it near Elijah’s Well in Palestine, on Mt. Carmel (see 1 Kings 18). They ended up with an offshoot of the Carmelites called the “barefoot” or “discalced” Carmelites.

Mariko’s emphasis on pilgrimage last night at Frankford Ave. helped me remember good times on my journeys with Jesus. While on pilgrimage in Kent over a decade ago, we stayed in Aylesford Abbey, the site of the first convocation of Carmelites in England in 1240. A yard full of elementary kids were there when we arrived, which was right in line with the order’s traditional love of children.

Teresa and John in Avila

I am Teresa of Jesus

When we were in Avila a few years ago, Gwen and I went to the house where Teresa got started on her remarkable, influential ministry. For some reason we were the only pilgrims at the site and had a great museum all to ourselves. It seemed mysterious and important. Holy. On the stairs there was a mannequin of a little boy, replicating one of the moments of ecstasy that popped up in Teresa’s prayer. One day, as she was preparing to ascend the stairs leading to the upper rooms of the convent she met a beautiful child. He asked her “Who are you?” She replied, “I am Teresa of Jesus. And who are you?” To which the child responded, “I am Jesus of Teresa.”

Biographers say that encounter with the Lord, as a child, affected Teresa so deeply that whenever she set out to organize one of the eighteen (!) new houses she founded, she always brought a statue of the Child Jesus with her. She did a lot of teaching on contemplative prayer and encouraged everyone to leave their hearts open to visions and mysterious connections with God. But she didn’t want people to seek them or to rely on them.

Who are you?

In Carmelite spirituality there is an ancient custom of choosing a name which uniquely expresses a member’s personal relationship to the mysteries of the faith. Thus there are people like Teresa of Jesus, John of the Cross, and Elizabeth of the Trinity. In honor of these ancestors in the faith, I have been pondering what name I should have.

If the risen Lord were to ask you today, “Who are you?” How would you answer? If you were a Discalced (or another kind of) Carmelite, what new name would you choose for yourself? What mystery of the faith has been central to your life-journey in Christ?

When I pondered these questions in Teresa’s honor, I realized I have been blessed with so many ways to connect with God it is hard to choose something central (and Teresa cobbled together another name for herself, as well, since she couldn’t quite decide either). Rod of Jesus works for me, too. Rod of the Silence. Rod of the Road. Rod of the Pioneers. But mainly, I think, Rod of the Church fits, as in Ephesians 3.

The mystery of the body of Christ in action probably moves me most. It is so fragile and yet so powerful, like the sculpture our group made in the forest last Saturday.

I have never been diverted from my passion for the church’s work of restoring people to their rightful place, redeeming the creation, fulfilling what is left of the Lord’s suffering as a living organism of many harmonious parts.  Maybe that is why I have a hard time figuring out a name – I would prefer to be named by my brothers and sisters as they recognize Jesus in me, Jesus living through me to contribute what I have been given to share.

“Who are you?” How would you answer? At the Men’s Retreat last weekend one of the answers we offered the men is “You are the treasure God found when he was plowing his  field in you. You are the beloved of God.” That might be the best place to start in order to see how you might be described in relation to the other wonders of God.

Brigid Day — celebrating great women of faith

February 1 is always a great day to celebrate great women of faith. Thank God for Brigid and for you!

Here are some pieces from the past that celebrate Brigid of Ireland and women like her of today.

2009 — Today Is Saint Brigid’s Day

2014 — Nineteen Flame-tending Women to Start

Mary Magdalene restored

mary magdaleneOne of the most maligned women in the Bible is actually a very interesting example of someone who dramatically overcame her past and pioneered a new direction for others to follow as she followed Jesus. I am talking about Mary of Magdala — Mary from a little town not far from Capernaum called Magdala, the Magdalene.

A new investigation of this Mary

I approve of the new interpretation of Mary Magdalene seen in the picture above. I am happy for her to get reformed from all the nonsense that has been pasted on her over the years. For instance, long about the 600’s, the church in Europe went into a new phase of reinterpreting the Bible and women got a raw deal. This can especially be seen in the way the two most famous Marys in the New Testament were developed. Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene end up on the opposite ends of the stereotype of women: Mary as an untouchable, perpetually virgin saint and Mary Magdalene as the all-too-touched, perpetually repentant sinner. Instead of the saved people Jesus and Paul so obviously saw women to be, they end up stereotyped and back in oppression.  I find that painful.

Mary Magdalene even ends up with a derogatory word attached to her stereotype: maudlin. You may have never used that word, but if you read English novels, you may have run into it. It means affectionate or sentimental in an effusive, tearful or foolish manner (especially when you’re drunk and self-pitying). It is a very British word. The ways Brits pronounce Magdalene is “maudlin.” So her name means weepy.

mary magdalene maudlinIn church art, Mary has almost always been pictured as a loose woman who is weeping, since her main scene in the Bible is one in which she is weeping: “Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying” (John 20:11). For some reason the church kept her weeping, even though in just a few more lines of John she recognizes the risen Jesus and becomes the apostle to the apostles.

Mary Magdalene’s background

We know just a little from the Bible about Mary Magdalene, although she is mentioned much more than most of the twelve disciples. Here is one of the places we get some details: “Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,  and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means” (Luke 8:1-3).

Seven demons is having an extreme problem! But nobody knows what kind of life Mary Magdalene had been living before she met Jesus. When Luke says women followed along with Jesus who “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities” he could be talking about a variety of things we regularly see: a person who is sick physically, relationally, mentally, or certainly spiritually.  Later in church history, the legend of Mary Magdalene was used to discredit sex in general and to disempower women, so her “demons” were characterized as the torments that accompany someone who is promiscuous. She was tagged as a prostitute, for which there is no shred of evidence in the Bible or even in the extra-Biblical books from the early years in which she is mentioned. Regardless, she had been consumed by something horrible and Jesus freed her. His grace made her thankful and devoted. That we know. Just last week one of us told me they felt a spirit leave them when they gave up a sin. So we understand what Mary felt like and why she was so tied to Jesus.

Mary Magdalene the lead woman apostle

She was not only tied to Jesus, she was important to Jesus. During the time of her life recorded in the Bible, Mary Magdalene’s name is one of the most frequently found. In Matthew, Mark and Luke the women who were with Jesus are listed. Each time, Mary Magdalene’s name appears first. In Luke the three main disciples are listed and Peter is listed first.  I argue, with many, that Mary Magdalene must have held a very central position among the followers of Jesus. She could have been the lead woman like Peter was the lead man.

At the time of the crucifixion and resurrection Mary Magdalene comes to the fore. Uniquely among the followers of Jesus, she is specified by name as a witness to three key events: Jesus’ crucifixion, his burial, and the discovery that his tomb was empty. In Mark, Matthew, and John, Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection. She is the who told the disciples what happened and gave them a message from the Lord. So Mary Magdalene was the “Apostle to the Apostles.” After her first report to the other disciples that Jesus was risen, Mary Magdalene disappears from the New Testament. She is not mentioned by name in the Acts of the Apostles, although she may be one of the women mentioned in Acts 1:14. Her next acts are undocumented.

In the time of Jesus himself, there is every reason to believe that, according to his teaching and who was in his circle, women were unusually empowered as fully equal. In the early church, when the norms and assumptions of the Jesus community were being written down, the equality of women is reflected in the letters of St. Paul (c. 50-60), who names women as full partners—his partners—in the Christian movement. In the Gospel accounts that were written later, evidence of Jesus’ own attitudes can be seen and women are highlighted as people who had courage and fidelity that stood in marked contrast to the men’s cowardice.

Mary Magdalene’s deformation

As the church was co-opted into the state and then when the church of Rome became the state after the Roman empire fell apart, Jesus’ rejection of the prevailing male dominance was eroded in the Christian community. In the books of the New Testament, the argument among Christians over the place of women in the community is already a regular feature. Mary Magdalene became the poster child for the argument as time went on. I say she was a leader, an apostle to the apostles. She became a weepy prostitute repenting of her sins.

The Mary Magdalene creator, Gregory I
Gregory I dictating a chant

Here’s an example of how her deformation happened. In the late 500’s Pope Pelagius II died of plague and one of the most influential popes ever succeeded him, Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604).  When the disciplined and brilliant Gregory was elected pope he at once emphasized penitential forms of worship as a way of warding off plague, among other things. His reign was marked by the codification of spiritual disciplines and thought; it was a time of reform and invention. But it all occurred against the backdrop of the plague, a doom-laden circumstance in which the abjectly repentant Mary Magdalene, warding off the spiritual plague of damnation, was created. With Gregory’s help, she was transformed from leader among women to maudlin prostitute.

In about 591 Pope Gregory I gave a series of sermons that rewrote Mary’s history. He took a few of those Marys in the Bible, squashed them together and made them into a composite Mary Magdalene. He said that Mary’s seven demons were the seven deadly sins, heavy on the lust. He said that she was the same woman who poured ointment on Jesus — repurposed ointment that formerly made her a nice-smelling sex partner. She was the one who washed Jesus’s feet with tears and dried them with her wantonly uncovered hair. He said,”She turned the mass of her crimes to virtues, in order to serve God entirely in penance.”

Thus Mary of Magdala, who began as a powerful woman at Jesus’ side became the redeemed prostitute and Christianity’s model of repentance — a manageable, controllable figure, and an effective weapon and instrument of propaganda against her own gender. What most drove the anti-sexual sexualizing of Mary Magdalene was the male need to dominate women. In the Roman Catholic Church, as elsewhere, that need is still being met.

The church did her wrong. It may have done you wrong and may do you wrong again. But I pray that you maintain your own sense of how Jesus freed you and let you touch him and made you his messenger, even if someone tries to steal that from you.  Mary Magdalene is a cautionary tale about how the story of redemption can be warped. But she is also an example of how the truth retold has a remarkable capacity to shake off the corrosion of the misguided. People overcome what loads them down and stride into their fullness when they follow Jesus.

Loving Women Leaders

Lately, we have been having an interesting discussion about women in leadership among the Circle of Hope. It centers around our drive to have a woman pastor someday. And what people mean by a “woman pastor” is like the four congregational pastors, I think — the person who is the Christian equivalent of the CEO, COO, CFO, something C with an O.

I have been sharing two main responses to our dialogue:

1) We have women leaders, two of them are named “pastor,” many of them are cell leaders whose job is pastor. Why are they so invisible?

2) Women face the same roadblocks among us that they face in other institutions. We need to become conscious of those obstacles to leadership and stay conscious. Women please don’t stay invisible.

First, let’s celebrate the women leaders we have.

Hild Day was last Saturday. It gives me an excuse every year to focus on women in leadership. Hild was a great leader of the church during the 600s. In a day when women rarely led men, she did.

Below is a composite picture of some of the “Hilds” of Circle of Hope. These are just the women who are either named a pastor (Gwen and Rachel), who are leaders of the core teams that make up our network Leadership Team — all three are presently women (Vanessa, Megan, Alison), or who lead cells, the basic building blocks of  our church.

There are further women who lead mission teams and compassion teams, too! We are blessed with a lot of dedicated people. (There are probably some better pictures, too — sorry).

Second let’s keep thinking about how to get the roadblocks out of the way of our women!

I still think our recently-vinted proverb makes sense: “We are diverse in many ways and we will cross boundaries to become more so. Don’t bean count us.” Merely having a discussion of the rights and identity of women is not up to Jesus’ standards. Our equality is not measured by the world’s measure. We are growing up gifted people of both genders to be leaders and we are growing everyone down so we don’t think leaders are the most important people in the room.

But while we hope to decrease the sense of competition for power among us, acting like there is no assertion necessary to lead will likely just leave the leadership to the men, who already dominate it throughout our society. I think we all need to pay attention to what it takes to lead as a woman among us and help people succeed at it when Jesus calls them forward.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is stored on youtube  giving a TED talk about why a smaller percentage of women than men reach the top of their professions. She offers three good pieces of advice for women who aspire to leadership that I think apply in our setting, too.

1) Sit at the table. Women tend to underestimate their capabilities. They are more collegial in their assessment of how they became successful. They defer instead of reach. If you need data to back up these facts, she has it – but you can usually see how we relate at a meeting and it will give you enough evidence for the same conclusions, I think.

2) Make your partner a real partner. If a woman is going to do more than make her husband’s career succeed, he is going to have to be a partner at home in a significant, mutually-agreed-upon way. This has to be true for a woman who leads the church, too. Her husband will have to help make that work.

3) Don’t leave before you leave. Sandberg mainly talks about the tendency women have: they consider what it will be like to have children and a job and then mentally opt out of working hard. We don’t hire the vast majority of our leaders among Circle of Hope, so she is not thinking about our context. But I think women react in a similar way when given the opportunity to serve or lead in the church in some significant way. They are committed to their parenting in a way that makes them feel ineligible.

Being the leader of a congregation, cell or team is not what most people are going to do. But I think we should all be ready to take on the challenge to lead when given the opportunity if we are given the grace to do so — since, as our proverb says, “Women and men are co-bearers of the image of God and therefore fully gifted and responsible to lead, teach and serve.” Most of us are not leading, we are being catalyzed, equipped and steered by leaders, and we only need a few of these crucial people. There is a lot to do; and most of us are doing it.

Women have significant roadblocks to leading us to do it. Sheryl Sandberg implies that many of the roadblocks are self-imposed. But we know that no one gets where they are going alone. If we hope for women to live and give according to the fullness that is in Jesus; we can all contribute to the success of each woman we recognize as gifted and called to serve us as a leader. If there are roadblocks, inside or out, let’s lovingly knock them out of the way.

Kristen and the Sword of Wendell Berry

I have been meaning to tell this little story about Kristen for a few weeks. The Monday after resurrection Sunday seems like a good time to tell it. Our good feeling of new life is going to meet up with our schedules. The resolve we honed with our Lent disciplines is going to meet up with opposition. The week after Easter can be such a let-down because we get tested and we don’t meet the test as well as we would like. So I thought I would offer you a story about how Kristen got tested and met the test. I think of her up on her soap box quite often, making herself heard among the big loud men speaking for the empire. I appreciate her example, because I also need the courage to open my mouth and speak my heart. Like her, I am also confronted with a world that desperately needs what has been lavished on me in Jesus.

She was doing a summer internship last summer at a farm in Massachusetts. It was some, wonderful organic farm that invites the kids up to do some work, get themselves dirty and get reconverted to humanity. One of the farm’s outlets for their produce was the farmer’s market in a village nearby. Kristen went along to help sell the kale and whatnot.

It happened that the village had a good Massachusetts tradition of having a “speaker’s corner.” When there was a farmer’s market, they set up a place where people could exercise their right of free speech. Since it was near the Fourth of July, speakers were feeling especially patriotic and quite a few people were getting up to say something. The rhetoric was tending to lean Tea Partyish.

One man got up and read a familiar paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. — That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it…”

He thought that the government was doing a relatively admirable job of securing our rights with its various wars. He exhorted the crowd to support the troops. Kristin was not having it. She had been reading Wendell Berry. She was about ready to join Shalom House for a couple of years (at least). So she decided to get up on the soapbox and speak back with poetry. She whipped out the sword of Wendell Berry and said: 

The year begins with war.
Our bombs fall day and night,
Hour after hour, by death
Abroad appeasing wrath,
Folly, and greed at home.
Upon our giddy tower
We’d oversway the world.
Our hate comes down to kill
Those whom we do not see,
For we have given up
Our sight to those in power
And to machines, and now
Are blind to all the world.
This is a nation where
No lovely thing can last.
We trample, gouge, and blast;
The people leave the land;
The land flows to the sea.
Fine men and women die,
The fine old houses fall,
The fine old trees come down:
Highway and shopping mall
Still guarantee the right
And liberty to be
A peaceful murderer,
A murderous worshipper,
A slender glutton, Forgiving
No enemy, forgiven
By none, we live the death
Of liberty, become
What we have feared to be. — 1991 – I

Her new friends at the farm were a bit concerned. Not only were her listeners the prospective buyers of farm-fresh organic tomatoes, they later told her that they were not entirely convinced that the villagers would not do her harm if she kept reading her poetry. But sometimes when Kristen gets going she needs to complete her thoughts. So she kept going and closed with this: 

 Now you know the worst
 we humans have to know
 about ourselves, and I am sorry,

 for I know you will be afraid.
 To those of our bodies given
 without pity to be burned, I know

 there is no answer
 but loving one another
 even our enemies, and this is hard.

 But remember:
 when a man of war becomes a man of peace,
 he gives a light, divine

 though it is also human.
 When a man of peace is killed
 by a man of war, he gives a light.

 You do not have to walk in darkness.
 If you have the courage for love,
 you may walk in light. It will be

 the light of those who have suffered
 for peace. It will be
 your light. 

1995 – V To my granddaughters who visited the Holocaust Museum on the day of the burial of Yitzak Rabin, November 6th 1995.

Thank God for people with the courage to share their heart for peace! Jesus died on the cross for reconciliation with God and others. Jesus pointedly did not raise an army to achieve his ends. Jesus rose again and continues to rise in people who have the courage to be the light. The light comes from being at peace with God. But peace with God that does not make peace on earth doesn’t really have much to get up on the box and say, does it? Let’s meet our tests this week with audacity and hope.

Nineteen Flame-tending Women, to Start

February 1 is Ibolc. It marks the first stirrings of spring in Ireland. St. Brigid’s Day is attached to it. Candlemas is also attached to it, marking the 40 days after Christmas when Mary went to the Temple, with baby Jesus in tow, to honor the rules for being ritually purified after giving birth, and thus meeting Simeon and Anna. It’s the Candle Mass in the old days because everyone in Ireland brought their special, home-use beeswax candle to the meeting for a blessing. Those candles symbolized the presence of God, the flame of the Spirit with them. As with all the big days of the Christian year, Brigid’s Day is all mixed up with legend, the seasons of paganism, and arguments over what is the best way to honor her memory.

I’m not bothering with the controversies too much. I feel free to strain out good things from not-so-good things whenever I can. I’m into “testing everything and holding on to what is good” as Paul instructs the Thessalonians to do. Using Jesus’ metaphor another way, I think we should strain out the gnat of good and not swallow the camel of nonsense when we need to.

The site of the perpetual flame and a flame keeper at Kildare ca 1780

I like to remember the Brigids of my own era on Brigid’s Day. As the church was first forming, brilliantly, in Ireland, Brigid was a great leader (see last year’s blog about it, if you like). At the site of the community she founded and lead in Kildare, we visited the enclosure for the perpetual flame that Brigid tended and which burned for over a thousand years before Protestants doused it. The flame was a sign of the presence of Jesus in the heart of Ireland. The guide told us that the flame’s keepers were on a twenty-day cycle. Nineteen women were selected to keep the fire going and on the twentieth night Brigid kept it herself.

I like the idea of nineteen women keeping the flame of faith going. I know several sets of those kind of women, and so do you. They are keeping faith alive in a time when there are a lot more than Protestants trying to douse it! I collected my own roster, just to celebrate the idea that women are still courageously tending the flame. I listed the first nineteen who randomly came to my mind, below, and resisted listing nineteen more. I know many women who keep the flame burning among the Circle of Hope. I thought you might like to add one or two to the list, as well.

Brigid’s Day is a good day to celebrate what burns with the fire of Jesus. It is a good day to celebrate faithful women who tend the flame and to imagine all the good they are causing to stir up springtime in the winter of the world. By selecting nineteen I did not mean to deselect all the rest, of course — this is not the Grammy Awards of spirituality! I just want us to look around on Brigid’s Day and note the spark of the perpetual flame in each one, celebrate what God has done, and anticipate what God  might do.

Here’s my random nineteen.

Gwen – spiritual director, promoter of mental health, flame-builder in children
Sarah – leader of cells and cell leaders and network builder
Rachel – pastor to many and group leader for those in need
Marquita – homemaker, daring leader, student
Aubrey –vision keeper, compassionate teacher
Jen – risk taker, church planter
Martha – business maker, fearless leader
Tracey – tenacious servant, overcomer
Megan – hardworking environment maker
Katie – hospitable faith builder
Christina – business builder, evangelist, mother to many
Kelly – ambitious talent user, seeker of the deep
Angie – teacher in song, empath
Missy – missional organizer, persistent servant
Mimi – peacemaker, missional educator and fire builder
Emily – visionary organizer, risk taker, networker
Melissa – consistent caregiver, safety net sewer
Brittney – visionary outreacher, passionate leader
Courtney – multi-talented creator, brave life developer

If you feel like contributing to the formation of another nineteen flame-tenders (or more!), add a comment!

Child, imagine fearlessly walking with God

I bought a best-selling children’s book the other day called Bubble Trouble. It has an intricate rhyme that entertains me. Upon first-reading, it proved to be a bit over Josiah’s head. He had trouble figuring out the plot. The first question upon turning a page, several times, was “Where is the baby’s mother?” We needed to establish that, because, I discovered, this was sort of a scary book about a baby who floats away in a bubble until the townfolk rescue him. When we were finished, Josiah’s first comment was, “I am too big for a bubble to take me,” followed by a hopeful look at my face.

How do we ever learn to deal with our fears? I am still learning. It helped that I had a grandmother who read to me. I got to experience some of the scary things about the big world while snuggled in her rocking chair. It also helped that I was sent to church as a little child to snuggle up with Jesus.

For some reason, a song that was 80 years old by the time my Sunday school teachers taught it to me as a child has kept rising to the surface lately. I think it has always helped me walk with God and resist fear.

Can a little child like me
Thank the Father fittingly?
Yes, oh yes! be good and true,
Faithful, kind, in all you do;
Love the Lord, and do your part;
Learn to say with all your heart,

Father, we thank Thee,
Father, we thank Thee,
Father in Heaven, we thank Thee.

If you want to hear it, try this link.

The fact that I, through some great blessing, retained that song through the onslaught of all the info that started piling up in my lifetime seems kind of miraculous. Every verse is a winner. They all take children seriously and respect them for who they are, according to their capacity. Each calls us to be honorable and good.  “Don’t be afraid! You can do it!” I think Monster’s Inc. is trying to do something like that. But there is an awful lot of plot that muddles up the teaching these days.

Mary Mapes Dodge

Mary Mapes Dodge (1831-1905), who is buried up the road just south of Newark, included “Can a Little Child Like Me”  in her book Ba­by Days: A Se­lect­ion of Songs, Stor­ies, and Pic­tures, for Ve­ry Lit­tle Folks in 1877. It was a follow-up to her best seller Hans Brinker (which you can still enjoy on Disney reruns).

When people write about Mary Mapes Dodge, she receives the treatment so many Christians of her era receive these days. Her faith is extracted and her work is treated like she was not a Christian. She becomes one more purveyor of plot lines for the plot machines churning out material. But I am pretty sure that in her mind Jesus and Hans Brinker went together. Hans had learned to be like Jesus. She most likely hoped children would learn to love the Lord by sitting in a chair with her or singing her song in church. She had learned to face her own fears, along with her children, after her husband killed himself and left her a widow. Her faith fueled her second life as an author and editor.

You’ve probably got a child in your life somewhere. They are undoubtedly facing the same fears you are still facing. Take a good look at them and love them. It is better that they learn from you than they are left alone with their fears to extract whatever random thing they latch on to from the tsunami of info that keeps washing over them, and which will keep flooding them the rest of their days, no doubt.

I think my meditation today should center on retrieving the good things God has given me via all the good people who loved and spoke for him throughout my childhood – and thank him. The visions we shared in various rocking chairs and song times during my baby days opened my mind and heart to imagine fearlessly walking with God.

For the Cadets on Jean Donovan Day

Last night the president had some uphill sledding to do with his speech to the cadets at West Point. I admit I did not listen very well to every word, since I was also reading a magazine and writing our Christmas letter (sorry Barack). But I did notice that the poor man could not get any applause for the longest time! And, if nothing else, he is a good applause-getter! He finally loosened them up with the sheer power of a great speech. But the cadets didn’t get their hands moving until he complimented them! It was glaring. They were either feeling reticent about showing too much emotion (they were apparently instructed not to smile until the end – attenshun!) or they were reticent about him. But they finally got clapping when they were essentially clapping for themselves!

Applause for ourselves?

Am I making too much of this? I doubt it. I think we have been raising people to be aggressively self-centered and amazingly entitled for twenty years, now. Of course the cadets applauded for themselves! I wouldn’t be surprised if the line was purposely inserted in the speech to make sure they would get what they wanted. Why wouldn’t the president be a deliveryman for one’s self-interest?

It may have been more interesting than that. There was a lot of politicking going on in that speech. Obama talks to the cadets, then he turns to the camera and talks to the nation. He turns back and talks to the military in general, then he turns to the camera and talks to the world. He’s good. Plus, he was doing some slight variations on the stock, “We’ve got to pull out the stops and keep the war going” speech that people will be talking about today. The pundits were already being amazed that he was saying “We’ve got to build up so we can pull out.” And John McCain was already doubting that ever having an end point to a war is a good thing. I think his point is, “Even if it bankrupts us and we can’t really hope to dominate them, we need to try.”

Or applause for Jean Donovan

It is quite jarring to think about all that when I go to bed and then wake up and realize it is Jean Donovan Day. She was martyred by a Salvadoran death squad on Dec. 2, 1980, when she was twenty-seven years old on a two-year mission with the Maryknoll sisters. She was supposed to be advancing literacy among the campesinos and ended up a disciple of Oscar Romero burying people caught in the crossfire of the government’s attacks on “subversives.” Her famous note to a friend, a few weeks before she was raped and murdered, said: “The Peace Corps left today and my heart sank low. The danger is extreme and they were right to leave… Now I must assess my own position, because I am not up for suicide. Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”

Yes, I do want the cadets to care about the children and do unreasonable things to serve peasants. They will certainly find enough of them in Afghanistan! Honestly, I think a lot of the cadets would like to do that, too. So I want the president to help them change the world in the Jean Donovan way. Honestly, I think he might like to do that. So I want Jesus to keep defeating evil for us so we are not so foolish and controlled by self-destruction and the president gets to do what he must really want to do. In the meantime, I hope each of us will honor Jean Donovan today because she knew how to be in league with Jesus in a very practical way.

On Hild Day — in praise of women leaders

[In honor of Hild Day, Nov. 17, and in honor of the good women leaders among the Circle of Hope, I thought I’d re-do a piece written in 2008 and share it with you]

Leadership makes a difference

When I say that, a good 90% of us probably automatically tune out. As far as the organizations we understand and the church as it is, we already have a lot of leaders over us and we don’t see room for many more, certainly not ME.

We don’t imagine Jesus calling us to lead any time soon, either.

When Jesus talks about his claim to lead the people of God he pictures himself as a good shepherd, as opposed to all those false shepherds that lead everyone into misery. Very few of us would sign up to be a shepherd like that, good or false.

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:27-30.

Most of us don’t feel like we need to be in the shepherd role. I call that leadership on the “macro level,” sometimes. Not everyone is given that role. And I think that makes sense, since we don’t really need that many of those catalysts and guides.

But all of us are leading, in one way or another on what we might call the “micro level.” God has given each of us the capacity to make a difference. You count. You are in the father’s hand. You are carrying eternal life. So what you do means something. What you do leads me. You are like an undershepherd looking out for my interests.

I was arguing this out with a person the other day and telling him that his immoral life was leading me. He was presenting me a direction for how I should follow Jesus. I had to think, “Should I do it his way, or another way?”  He wasn’t happy to hear me thinking about this. He wanted to make no difference. He said, “I live my life and you live yours.” But I told him that was impossible. We get a common life from Jesus, that doesn’t belong to either of us exclusively. We are tied together —  if you just live whatever you think your life is, doesn’t that lead me to exercise the same illusion? Besides, we are tied by love. I love you. I cannot make you not make a difference to me. Where you are going, in some way, is where I am going too. The question is, “Where are you leading me?”

In some major ways you can tell where a people is going by where their macro leaders are going. But that is not the whole story. Especially in the church, you can tell where the church is going by what the preponderance of the individuals are doing, where the microleaders are going. If we are mostly passionate, visionary, loving, faithful people, things will go that direction. If we are not responsive to the Spirit of God’s leadership, nothing I or another macroleader tries to catalyze will get too far.

I know this is not true of quite a few people who read this blog, but I would say that many of us probably take ourselves much too lightly. You are not leading us where you think we should be going. As a result, you are more like one of the thieves or hired hands that Jesus is fighting than you might like to think.

Hild can help us think this through. In the era in which the New Testament was written, and in the era that saw the flowering of the Celtic Church, our spiritual ancestors had the very same challenges we do. The work of Jesus always faces challenges to find its place and find a voice in every culture. And it always takes Spirit-empowered people to lead the way. Leadership makes a difference. There are always the thieves and the hired hands, and we pray that there are always the undershepherds listening to Jesus, the good shepherd, and following.

So I want to re-tell the story about how it worked out a long time ago with Hild. I think this makes sense because we are a lot like the Celtic church. They were planting the church in a place like Center City Philadelphia, where so many people do not have faith and do not have a clear picture of Jesus at all. Our cells and our congregations are remarkably like the communities that the Celts formed to help people work out a way to live the abundant life Jesus promises and be a part of calling people who can hear the voice of Jesus into the fold to share that life.

Hild’s story center’s on Whitby, on the East coast of Northumbria. She became the famous leader of the Whitby Community about the year 650. That’s nearly 300 years after Patrick’s pioneering work in Ireland. A vibrant faith had spread from there to Scotland and down to Northumbria, and it had also moved up from Kent in the south. At this point the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northern England were the most vibrant on the islands. And Hilda was in the middle of it.

The story of Hilda’s leadership in the church begins with King Oswald, who became a follower of Jesus. King Oswald decided to help his people know the Lord so he sent off to the great community on Iona, where he had once lived in exile, to recruit a person who could help people come to faith.

The history of Oswald’s recruiting looks a bit like the  last U.S. presidential election. The first man Iona sent was too hot and people did not like him. Oswald sent him back. The next man sent was Aidan, who was gentler and more politically savvy. Aidan found a lot of success.

It was Aidan who spotted Hilda. Hilda was a distant member of a royal family who decided to become part of an intentional community at age 33. There were no communities exclusively for women in Northumbria at the time, so she was about ready to leave for France to join one there when Aidan persuaded her to stay. He trained her himself and gave her leadership of a household. She eventually moved to Whitby and founded a community where she was the leader for the last 23 years of her life. Unlike many of the Christian communities at the time, there were men and women at Whitby — Hild lead them all. They began what became a famous school. The community had a lot of influence in the surrounding area for hundreds of years. Hilda became so well-known that many people came to her for practical counsel and spiritual direction. If you have recently gotten close to the age when Jesus began his ministry and are feeling a little nervous about what is next, Hild demonstrates that the best is probably yet to come. If forty was the new thirty for you, don’t fret.

hild at tableUnlike many of the women of her time, Hilda ended up a macroleader. Aidan noticed her gifts and she responded to the call. There is a great picture of her at a present-day community near Whitby where she is seated at a round table leading, as she did in the tense and foundational discussion that happened at the Council of Whitby. We are still feeling the after-effects of that meeting.

I think Hilda followed the example of Jesus well. A good macroleader sees herself as a gate – an opportunity for people to enter into life, a way in to the community of faith. They are also a protector — they lay their lives down for the people and the cause. They are the servants lifting up the enterprise. They see the wolves circling. The also see who and what is next — like how Jesus talks about the sheep not of the present fold. The macroleader works at maintaining a vision that is beyond the present to help us get where we are going.

Our Cell Leaders, Cell Leader Coordinators, team leaders, and pastors are all doing their best to exercise this kind of transforming leadership. We are blessed with an astounding number of sincere, teachable and faithful leaders! Either they gain and exercise the audacity of Jesus and Hilda, or we make less of a difference, as a people, than we hope to make.  When I made a speech at a conference of the BIC last year, I was surprised to find out that they look to us, as a body, to provide some leadership for the whole denomination! They asked, “What have you learned in Philly that we could all apply? How do we live out the gospel these days?” I think I felt a bit like Hilda might have felt when she was being recruited by Aidan — I had a much smaller idea of who I was. We have something to bring; we need to bring it.

Hilda was also a notable microleader. Not that all women do this, but they are often better at not missing the trees for the forest. So many men cut down all the trees and pave things over so they can build something new in the name of their domination which they then call “safety!” Women can often lead with better empathy that starts with the trees there are and nurtures the true forest out of them.

This is well represented in the most famous story about Hilda that has to do with the cowherd named Caedmon, one of the workmen on Whitby’s large landholdings. Caedmon was at the opposite end of the social scale from Hilda. He was an illiterate farmhand. He seems to have been content with his lot except for one thing. Whenever the guys passed around the harp at the end of the day before bed, Caedmon headed for the door if he saw it coming his way. Songs and stories were valued and he was a tone-deaf guy. He wanted to get into the mix but soon everyone knew how embarrassed he was about his lack of ability.

One night he felt especially ashamed of himself and went back out to the cows, lonely and miserable. He ended up sleeping in the barn. There he had a dream. A man came to him and called him by name,

“Caedmon, sing me a song.”

“I can’t.” he said. “It is because I can’t sing that I am out here instead of with everyone else at table.“

”Can’t sing?” the voice said. “You can and you must.” ‘

“What must I sing about?”

“Sing about the creation of all things.” And Caedmon composed and song, right there in his dream —  a poem of praise of Creation. When he woke up, he discovered the dream was true. He sang his song to the cows.  In the morning, he told his boss what happened. The boss thought the story was weird enough to tell Hilda. .

Hilda got excited. She and the senior brothers and sisters gave Caedmon a little test. They chose a passage from the Bible and read it to him. He was to go make it a song. He took a whole day, but came back with an excellent song. At that Hilda invited him into the community. They didn’t bother to teach him to read Latin, they wanted him to make songs in English for people to sing as they ploughed and did their spinning. Caedmon is the first known English Christian poet.

In this Hilda was encouraging microleadership like Jesus also describes in the passage about being the good shepherd. Obviously Caedmon becomes the good cowherd in a whole new way.  Each of us are encouraged, I think, to see ourselves as someone with something to give. We get fed in the fold so we can grow into who we are meant to be. We count. Jesus knows us, Hilda knows Caedmon. We are not inconsequential. As it often goes, the least are often given the most because God loves using the least. He likes being the least.

Again, what you do good or bad, is going to cause something. It is sort of a sin to think of yourself as having no responsibility and leaving it all to Hilda. It is not Hilda’s job to be you! Caedmon heard God’s call directly. The leaders didn’t even know who he was. The sheep hear the voice of Jesus and follow. The following makes a difference. The one flock is people of all sorts following Jesus, and that gives it its beauty and power.

Hilda was ready to go to France. She ended up at home leading a community. Before long she was engaged in one of the leading communities of her area, hosting a synod that included people from Ireland, Scotland, and the South of England. Jesus is always looking for leaders like that who expand his fold and nurture and protect those in it. I’m not sure how Hilda felt about her responsibility. I know our president wondered how he got into his responsibility. Someone was testing him when he got started and asked him if he felt ready to be the leader of the free world. He said, “Who would?” I think many of us feel the same awe, like we just got an unusual song to sing, when Jesus calls us to make a difference.

Every one of us, whether we just entered the circle or not, has an opportunity to make a difference by what God has made us and given us to do. I don’t care if you are a big sinner right now, or if you are a women, or if you can sing or not. What you do starts good things and unlocks God’s capacity to transform.

We need our macro leaders to have energy, or like Oswald, we’ll have to go looking for someone who has some.

We need our microleaders to listen to their dreams. Sometimes the movement of God starts with your disappointment about what you can’t do. Please don’t give in to the disappointment and think you are useless. Please don’t let the wolf get you. The Good Shepherd is on our side and will keep working for us to have an abundant life – each of us and all of us.