Transfiguration, Perfectionism, and Practicing the Presence of God

Here’s the sermon I preached yesterday at my sponsoring parish. Please excuse the jump-in start—I began with a brief introduction of myself to new parishioners that’s not needed here. 

Things were intense for our family about this time last year, when I was just beginning at Sewanee with a five week old baby. In case you haven’t heard, new motherhood is not for the faint of heart. Your body is wrecked, you don’t get more than an hour or two of sleep at a time, and you’re doing this incredibly high stakes work with no previous experience. It’s complete bliss, complete terror, and complete exhaustion.

And there we went, heading up the mountain. While everyone at the School of Theology was incredibly kind, I was so spent and frazzled. I didn’t really know what I was doing—neither as a mom nor as a seminarian, bringing my newborn to new student orientation. I had the distinct feeling that my brain got misplaced somewhere in that last month of pregnancy. It seemed that I’d made a tremendous mistake.


So on my first day of class we’d gotten up at 5 to make it there with plenty of time for morning prayer in the Chapel of the Apostles. There are all my new classmates, other new seminarians that are distinctly more bright eyed than I am. I have my son in a sling carrier on my chest, a book of common prayer in one hand and an Anglican chant psalter in the other. Of course, halfway the scripture lessons, Sylvan starts to fuss. I’m not talking about chatting or whining. He was gearing up for the big one. And let me tell you—the only thing louder than a screaming baby in a church are the voices of shame and inadequacy shouting in a new mom’s head.

We swayed in the back row, and I desperately tried to calm and comfort him.

Oh, but then, the organist begins to play that refrain and just like that my tiny son goes calm and bright eyed. We felt the music from the organ and voices ring through our bodies, and the wind of pipes and throats was like the breath of the Holy Spirit blowing away my anxiety fear. There was enough stillness that for a moment, I noticed the way the morning light was coming through walls of windows in the Chapel, noticed the hint of incense and the feel of stone under my feet, notice that maybe my neighbors don’t mind the fuss as much as I think. Maybe we can do this! Maybe there is space for us here!  Maybe I can just show up and be present to God in this space. It was a little revelation of the presence of God, up on the mountain.

This morning we heard the good, good news of Jesus transfigured on another holy mountain, shining the divine glory and affirmed of God’s presence. We see the law and the prophets, represented in Moses and Elijah, all come together in the perfect revelation of God’s heart, Jesus Christ. With the disciples we see the fire and cloud and hear the voice of the Father proclaiming that God is with us in Jesus Christ.

And this divine revelation is seen in the midst of messy, faithful work. In the surrounding stories of Luke, we can read about Jesus’ healing of the little girl and the hemorrhaging woman, taking time for everyone from the social elite to the desperate and destitute. Then he’s sending out the disciples to heal and preach, with that terrifying instruction to go without money, provisions, not even a change of clothes. And after their apprenticeship, the disciples return, the crowds congregate, and we have the feeding of 5,000 people from 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. What exhausting work! Then Jesus is having the toughest conversations with the disciples, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” and telling them that faithfulness will mean carrying a cross.

To see the bigger picture of who God is, we have to take the story of the Transfiguration in its context. To know Jesus as fully God and fully human, we have to see the glory and the struggle, we have to see the toil and valleys on either side of this sacred mountain. If we want to journey on with Christ, we have to remember that even in the middle of the glory, Jesus talks to the prophet and the liberator about the hard road ahead. We have to remember what Peter, in his enthusiasm to put up a shrine, forgot—that the retreat to prayer and glory is only for a moment.

When the organ stops playing, the baby will fuss again.

When the cloud dissipates and the heavenly voice quiets, the disciples have to walk back down the mountain, and they walk toward Jerusalem, where Jesus will be arrested and abused.

It is hard to leave the mountain and show up for the messy, faithful work.

Brene Brown, a professor and researcher of social work, has done incredible work on courage, shame, and vulnerability. In her research, she identified a category of people who seem to be resilient, present, open, honest. A good Episcopalian, Brown calls them the “whole-hearted,” pulling  this concept from our prayer of confession: “We have not loved you with our whole heart,” and turning it on its head to ask what a life of whole-heartedness might look like.

Brene Brown’s research identifies one main thing as a whole-heartedness killer, a shame trigger that will keep us from fully loving God. It’s perfectionism, the desire to get things right, or appear as if we have gotten things right. Perfectionism is wanting not just a change of clothes and a walking stick for our mission, but also maybe some decent hotel reservations, a game plan, and a buddy system, and Siri. Perfectionism is sending the hungry crowd away, because we can’t try the hard new thing if we think we might fail. Perfectionism, God help us, is trying to interrupt the epiphany and put a shrine around it so that we can control what’s happening or document it to show our friends later.

Think about the last really brave thing you did. Think about the last time you prayed, “God help me!” and really put yourself out there. I hate to tell you, and you might already know, that courage and openness usually feels excruciating, exposed, anything but brave. It might feel like showing up in a strange town doing strange things, like preaching and healing, when you don’t know how you’ll be received. Wholehearted may in fact be like stopping on your way, like Jesus did, to say, “Who touched me?” “Who needs help?” when you aren’t sure what will be asked of you. What looks like glory, fire, and Spirit on the outside, might have felt very different to Jesus, who stood in a place of reckoning with the hard choices and suffering that lay ahead of him. If we want to be in a place to experience transfiguration, we have to embrace the difficult daily work and deny our impulse to control. We have to receive the good and maybe uncomfortable news that we don’t have be perfect, just present.

The transfiguration is an important moment, but only one moment in a lot of work, work that took a lot of risks and a lot of guts.

In the revelation of the Transfiguration, and in the ministries surrounding it, Jesus invites the disciples into a moment of pure presence—to God, showing up in the world in all its need and beauty, in the magnificent moments of epiphany, in the interior prayers and the serious conversations, in the hard every day work of dying to the self. To be present to God and to our lives, in both the glory and the work, takes a lot of courage. When asked to be present to our lives, we might be overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, or so busy that we miss the opportunity for miracles. When asked to be present to God, we might fear that glory and intimacy, and like the disciples, try to build a shrine, a box for God.

But God knows we are only dust, God knows we struggle with this. And so Spirit offers invitations to be present, again and again, invitations  to take notice of all kinds of epiphanies taking place all around us. Every invitation is a chance for our faces to blaze with the light of God. Every invitation is a chance to let that blaze of glory light a fire underneath us to go forth into the hard and beautiful work of proclaiming love, feeding the hungry, taking up crosses, and being present to the presence of God.

 So, what is the last brave, hard thing you did? What’s the next brave, hard thing on your horizon? How can you find the glory of God’s presence in the middle of it?

Diffusing Release all day every day.

Home

Thanks to my friend Michael for inviting me to share a story at the Tenx9 event at Wild Goose Festival last weekend. This particular story has been mulling around in me, looking to be told for the last 7 years. 

I had just finished exams, may of my junior year of college, and was living in those sweet days when the work is done but no one has left for summer break. We all played, enjoying all the best things of being 19. I was going on lots of late night drives to the mountains for star-gazing and late morning coffees with my best friend, lots of dancing and movie watching and philosophizing over secret beers. And here’s the best part. As part of my major in theology and ministry, studying community and small group models, I was getting ready for a trip to England—solo!—to go stay at a Christian intentional community. I had my passport, a fat reading list, and a marked up train schedule I printed off the national rail website. This cluster of people in the English countryside had some secret to what it meant to live together in Christ, something different and deeper than a Sunday morning church service. And I was going to go over there and see it for myself.

Then I got the call.

Granny, my mother’s mother, had been fighting cancer, making it through the brutality of chemo and radiation with the help of her quirky humor, her faith, and a whole lot of vodka. But just then she suddenly collapsed, and after my grandfather, known as Buddy Bob, got her to the hospital, the doctors told her that it had spread so rapidly—just since that last set of scans!—that her organs were shutting down.

My plans changed. Instead of playing for a month before England, I chose to go with Mom down to Eutawville, South Carolina and help take care of Granny.

That’s right, Eutawville. Population 350. You just drive right up there and get of 95 at Santee and hang a right. You can’t miss it. We bump down off the Old #6 Hwy onto a dirt, no, a sand road into the veil of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks. Hospice had beaten us there, replacing Granny’s pretty four poster with the automatic hospital bed. That smell of home health was there, too, that mix of antiseptic and sick, and it competed with bacon grease and magnolia blossoms and the enduring stale cigarette smoke that had caked into the wallpaper before Granny finally made Buddy Bob quit lighting up at the kitchen table ten years earlier.

So we kept the busy vigil of the dying-but-not-dead, trying not to see how quickly her tiredness was taking over, trying not to wonder about the new bulges we saw on her back and sides, trying not to consider whether the nonsensical talk was from the cancer or the pain meds.

There was also sweetness to it. We gave her pedicures and looked through every photo album. We turned away nosy church ladies and welcomed the true old friends, gatekeepers for the queen. I climbed the most precarious branches of that old magnolia in the side yard to keep the blossoms fresh on her bedside table. Each day I rubbed lotion on her hands and helped her take small sips of cold water.

One day Granny got a craving for pineapple. You’d better believe I was lickety split in two minutes driving down to the Piggly Wiggly for a pineapple. You want a bloody mary for breakfast? You got it! (Although, let’s be honest, that had been a time honored tradition in Eutawville) On another afternoon Buddy Bob got in his head that a good steak might help her energy, give her some strength, so he sent me running off with $100 cash to the steak man, who worked from the back of a convenience store/butcher shop. Four of the best filets you can imagine, grilled rare and served up with tomatoes and corn from the garden and her own pound cake recipe.

But so soon she could no longer manage steak, much less sit at the table for a meal, and would doze off by dinnertime.

One day I sat next to Granny, reading while she napped, when I heard, “Booop. Boop boop boop boop!” I looked over. She was awake, smiling at me, wiggling her fingers overhead. “Hey Granny, what’s that?” She laughed. “These are my antennae.” “Oooooh, you’re antennae. Ok.” She closed her eyes again. Man, those meds… After several minutes of silence Granny said, “Listen.” Ok. I’m listening. “There are so many wonderful, beautiful things in this world. And if you don’t have your antennae up, you just might miss them.”

Granny died only a few weeks after I got the call, and we buried her in the holly hill cemetery, just like she’d wanted. Her church lady friend sang, “I Can Only Imagine,” just like she’d wanted. Back at the house we ate poundcake and strawberries, just like she’d wanted.

And a few days later I went to England. It didn’t occur to me not to. After all, I was 19 years old and I had an adventure to find, the heart of Christian community living to discover. I hopped on a plane for London, then a train for beautiful green Hampshire, to the manor house turned dormitory, down the little road from the quaint village—they say Jane Austen did some writing there. For two weeks I spent my mornings reading Henri Nouwen and drinking PG Tips. I spent my afternoons doing farm chores, cooking simple food for 50 people, and talking about God and life and art with all the other strange stragglers who’d shown up to this community for a few days or a longer sabbatical. England in June has 15 hours of sunlight each day, all the beauty and time you could hope for. I was ready with case study questions, ponderings that had come up during my college studies, and carried them around in a little notebook. With eagerness I attended every lecture in the great hall, morning prayer in the little worn chapel with hay bale pews. I was at every church service and lunch dialogue. I interviewed the full time community members, watched everything and jotted notes obsessively. I soaked in as much as I could, trying to understand, analyze, and qualify: what does it mean to be a person of faith living in community? I watched and listened. I tried to be a part of the common life, but really, I was there to study it. I never really talked to the others all that much about Granny and all that I’d just seen and lived. It didn’t occur to me to.

One evening I went to hear a talk by one of the full time community members. Prior to working in the community, he had worked in palliative care—a hospice doctor. He spoke about Jesus’ incarnation and what it might mean for Christians in community to be God incarnate all over again. He said that the world is full of wonderful, beautiful things-pay attention! They are signs of God at work around us. And doggone. You know what? That doctor said that most of all, we meet Jesus and we are Jesus any time we live into his teaching, any time we practice the beatitudes, any time we give someone so much as a sip of cold water.

The next morning I walked to the village. I went straight to the phone booth around the corner from the pub. I shoveled pence out of my pocket and into the slot, dialed international, and heard myself say, “Mama? I think I have to come back home.”

Podcasts for your heart

This month I’ve been in the car for three hours each day, driving to Sewanee for a summer intensive course in liturgical history. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this arrangement, but I would do it again in a minute just to be with my boys every night.

This is the most intensive period of solitude I’ve had since exactly a year ago, in the solitary waiting of those long last couple of weeks of pregnancy. With my solitude I’ve been praying and thinking, sipping coffee. With all that quiet, and in the tiredness of what can only be called a grind of driving and studying and squeezing in a little church work, the little questions and worries come. Almost every day it seems I am swinging in and out of doubt about this path to ordination. Luckily I have also been podcast binging, and have experienced that deep, rooting God peace in some of the wise conversations I have heard.

So here are my recommendations.

Today  I listened to this episode from The Liturgists from last fall, called “Woman”. It has one of the most beautiful expressions of the female lifespan in all its strength and fear I have ever heard in a beautiful poem from Lisa Gungor. It also tackles intersections of gender and race in a really thoughtful and compassionate way with Austin Channing Brown, and concludes with reflections from a lady pastor that just reminded me of the value of simply showing up in this embodiment and calling.
I do need to say that the episode veers into some transphobic territory, making intense comments about what bodies constitute “woman.” This is a growing edge for sure in this conversation and in the church and might not be a safe listen for all.

Last week I went down the enneagram, listening to The Road Back to You, a podcast based on the book by the same name by Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile. Those two and the way they present this learning—what gems! This interview with Mihee Kim Kort, a Presbyterian minister and enneagram 7, moved me to tears. If you want to skip to that good cry part, start 20 minutes in, when Ian, Suzanne, and Mihee are talking about the church’s tendency to favor certain kinds of gifts and personalities in clergy, right when it most needs to be open to a diverse priesthood. Whooo, boy, was that ever the good news for me in this season of feeling disjointed and like I must be “doing this wrong.” But really, take the time for the whole set up to heard Mihee’s story and get more insight into the whole type, and check out other episodes while you’re at it.

What wisdom has been nourishing your call lately? Got any bedtime reading or car ride listening to recommend?

Faithful and Perfect, Yes and No

A few years ago, I started to recognize and work on my perfectionist and achievement tendencies, thanks in no small part to encountering the Enneagram and learning about the gifts and troubles of my 3 type (you can learn more here and here). I read and meditated on being honest about my failures and limits, of working to be “faithful” instead of perfect. The idea here is that I can be faithful in my work and habits, plugging away and doing my best with grace for myself, open to the possibility that life can be good without being The Best. It’s the freedom to respond to one more invitation to responsibility with a “no,” when a “yes” for perfect’s sake would throw off balance, or rob emotional and spiritual well being.

Of course, if you adopt an idea and fail to re-examine it for a few years, guess what? “Faithful” is just a new name for “perfect,” a word well intended now hijacked by that addiction to have my shit together all the time and with excellence.

Suddenly this week I found myself in that manic frame of mind, thinking that a job change, buying and moving into a home, being our child’s primary caretaker, and adding a full-time summer intensive at Sewanee would be fine.

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But it’s not fine. I’m a human being and need to do things like eat and sleep and play with my baby and talk to my partner. If this formation to be priest is going to be more than just hammering out course credits, there needs to be adequate space to actually learn, not just regurgitate.

What dramatic life shift have I chosen, you wonder?

I’m just going to take one class instead of two, and try to remember to drink more water. That’s pretty much it. Because, frankly, I don’t trust myself to keep a good heart with a lofty goal plan—it’s too easy to slip into measuring and grading how well I’m doing… on letting go of accomplishment. And for someone whose identity is wrapped up in being turbo all the time, it’s harder than you’d think to say “no” to efficient, to closer graduation dates, to career advancement. Instead, this summer I’m going to say “yes” to a glass of wine in the evening with A., “yes” to good sleep, “yes” to painting my new bathroom and meeting our neighbors, “yes” to actually reading for class. Maybe even “yes” to potting herbs on the balcony or doing more little yoga videos.

How about you? What are you saying “no” to this summer? What gets a resounding “yes”?

Catching up

It’s been awhile since I’ve updated the blog or carved out space to write. Seminary mama has been hard at work on finals, life transitions, and new projects. Don’t be fooled by a nice blog template—there have been a lot of hot mess mama moments and half-developed term papers, and I’m trying to find the grace in good enough parenting and good enough theology.

Shoot. S. just woke up from his nap…

Alright. We’re settled with an iced coffee for me and a dumptruck full of cheerios for him. No, really, this is how we snack.

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To start, I’m now three weeks into a new position as the Director of Youth and Children’s Ministries at a great little parish in Nashville. This position came as a major answer to prayer, providing financial stability, career development, and more structure for our family in just the right season. St. Ann’s is a beautiful bunch and I’m honored to join and serve their community. Some of my blogging energy has been redirected to developing a regular content feed for the parents, providing some conversation starters and lectionary tie ins that families can use through the week. Feel free to subscribe and let me know how the conversations unfold!

Screen Shot 2017-05-18 at 3.43.25 PMWe’re also in the process of packing to move to the Little Condo, which will probably get its own story in time. Sufficient for now is that we are lucky and privileged to know where our next home will be. Nashville, like many other cities right now, is developing in economically unjust ways. My partner’s work for the last couple of years is mainly in tenant organizing and policy change for better development, so we’ve been aware of these problems for a while, but the process of searching for housing with the added anxiety of a child in our lives has brought a deeper dimension to it. Check out the work of Homes for All, that everyone can have a roof over their heads.

 And finally, right now I’m transcribing an interview for my friend Michael, whose next book will explore conversations of power and justice and reconciliation. It’s such an honor to contribute to his work and get to hear the first draft conversations with some amazing peace and justice workers. This guy is a great interviewer picking great minds—keep an eye out for the book!

As things settle out I’ll be getting back in a groove with making space and quiet where the reflections can grow. But of course, baby is about to start walking, so we shall see how the writing schedule goes.

Good Friday

We’ve moved into Easter season, but I only just had time to edit and organize these jotted thoughts from Good Friday. Please excuse my disconnect from the liturgical calendar! 

During the last two seasons of Advent and Christmas, I felt connected to Jesus in a profound way. Not too surprising that I could meet Jesus as son—I was pregnant along with Mary through Advent, and the following year, supplied my own baby to be Jesus in the manger. What I didn’t expect was to see Jesus as my son this week, Holy Week. In church I sat with S. listened to the trial, the beating, the execution, the burial. An astounding sermon by a friend colleague who also did chaplaincy work in the pediatric ICU, bravely speaking about the dying children.

The beloved child is being killed. He didn’t outlive his mother the way he was supposed to.

The precious roly-poly manger baby grew up. He listened to your lessons and corrections, he paid attention in synagogue. All grown up. He took all the law and the prophets to heart, listened more than you anticipated, and gave up everything to go around, healing and loving and listening and preaching. You spent the last few years loving his loving heart, sending your prayers, shaking your head at his strange ways, worrying that he might be stirring up trouble with his strange friends.
The stakes were high. Too high. If it weren’t all so horrifying, you’d be proud, so proud and astonished that the little speck of cells in your womb, the toddler you spanked, the teen you grounded, is this grown, beautiful, brave man.

There is no resurrection today. No hope. There is only the echoes of pain in your own body as you watch his broken. That pulling knot deep in your belly—you haven’t felt that since those first days after you birthed your last baby, that painful jerk of womb and breasts at their little cries—it’s back and stronger and bringing you to your knees.

Spirit is a She

Last weekend, I preached 3 back-to-back services in a congregation where I’d never preached before. S. and I had gone to stay with my parents in Georgia and he refused to sleep more than 45 minutes at a time for two nights in a row.

On Saturday night I had a weepy meltdown—maybe the system is just too hard. It would be easier not to do this work, not to keep fighting over and over for space for myself as a mother, to justify the beauty of my embodied roles that weave into my priestly roles.

Sunday morning after the first round of my sermon (Father Óscar Romero as one who, like the man born blind in John 9, had his physical and spiritual vision transformed and followed a risk taking God into costly grace—Amen?), I stood dutifully by the door of the church between the priest and deacon, shaking hands. “Thank you, beautiful day, happy to be here.” A woman, probably in her 70’s, grasped my shoulders and leaned to my ear. My stomach plummeted in the half second of waiting. What on earth had I said to warrant this? Am I in trouble?

“Did I hear you say that the Holy Spirit is a ‘she'”? she asked in a loud whisper. “Yes ma’am you did,” I whispered back. And she hugged me tight then let me go again to clap her hands and exclaim, now loudly, “I always thought so too!”

We chatted a bit more and I told her what I’ll tell you: This isn’t some shock value contribution, a sneaky added pronoun to ruffle feathers. The female Spirit is part of the Christian tradition, moving from Lady Wisdom in Proverbs to a God experiencing labor pains in bringing new life in and from the world in Galatians. It matters that Spirit is comforter and counselor, roles of feminized association. That which is debased as women’s work is the divine person and work of God. And that matters a lot.

While God is beyond the social construction of gender, we have so far to go on our anthropologies and theologies of gender before that can be practically  meaningful. As long as I have to retreat to my car to pump breastmilk between services, separated from my breast baby for hours in order to preach the gospel, we need to name and highlight the “she-ness” of God. As long as a guest can still assume that the two full-time women priests on staff at the chapel must be filling in for their part-time male counterpart like some sort of spiritual understudies, we need to name and highlight the “she-ness” of God. My little nieces and nephews and my son need Her, comforting and counseling. The seventy-some-year-old church ladies need Her, seeing themselves made in God’s image in their particularity. God knows, when I’m crying because I don’t know how to shoulder through one more sleepless night, doing the work that my female body must do, I need Her, nourishing and tirelessly keeping watch with me.

Yes ma’am, Spirit is a She!

What has the she-ness of God meant for you? When do you need Her?

Rolling on clary sage, fennel, and ylang ylang for all the embodied woman support.