Ready, Willing and Able for Peace

featured101217-300x199We were told that there would be booms. It was one of the first things that we were told about our new home. We’ll hear the booms, they said. Booms that shouldn’t frighten us or cause alarm, but are simply the noises of the military base thirty miles away.

It was just something they had said until I sat outside one morning with my book and my coffee and heard the booms. I felt the vibration each time.

Read more at New Sacred.

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Character: Essays by readers

Some time ago, the Christian Century invited readers to submit first-person narratives (under 1,000 words) reflecting on the word character.

They are requesting essays from readers on other words in the future, but it was to this one that I wanted to respond. It was for this word that I knew which story I would tell and so I wrote my short essay and hit submit.

The issue arrived in my mailbox yesterday and I keep looking at it in shock that my name is there. My name is there — and it says that I live in Texas. All of these things are bit too much for me. I’m thrilled to be included among these essays and even more excited as I hint toward the writing project I’ve been working on for so many months.

I do hope you’ll click over to read all of the essays featured in this issue.

 

Spirituality for the Resistance

I have not felt like an activist in years.

In truth, I’m not sure that I ever really felt like an activist even though ministry called for it. I couldn’t faithfully preach the gospel on Sunday without taking to the streets on Wednesday to advocate for that hope that had been in my words. While war continued to wage in the Middle East, as it does now, there was a season when I would spend an hour of every Wednesday afternoon in the public square witnessing to my hope for peace. I got to be an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality.

That was years ago. Since then, I’ve convinced myself that there wasn’t enough time or that my time could be better spent doing other things. I’ve even told myself that what I was doing wasn’t making any difference at all.

I’ve did such a good job convincing myself of this that I didn’t do much of anything. I argued that it was someone else’s fight. I couldn’t lead the change which is what ministry had taught me to do. I still am not sure how to be an ally. It’s lame and I’m embarrassed to admit it, but since I’ve struggled to rise up.

Others who would have never imagined themselves to be activists have arisen. They have organized in ways they’ve never imagined. They’ve started to run for office. As the LA Times reports, they’ve fueled the resistance. Maybe you’ve found that same courage. Maybe you’ve risen from the last election with new hope and new determination. Maybe you’ve started to engage in your local ways that you never did before and maybe you’re wondering how not to get overwhelmed with the onslaught of action that days like these requires.

Or maybe you’re bit more like me and you’re wading back into an old practice. Maybe it feels different now but there is still something tugging at your heart to rise up.

Rise Up!

Maybe like me you’re in between church communities or maybe you’ve never had a church community and are wondering what in the world people of faith have to say about activism. If any of these possibilities rings just a tiny bit true for you, then I can’t recommend this new devotional to you. I was thrilled to add this devotional collaboration to my kitchen to remember what it means for me to engage in the struggle for hope, love, justice and peace.

It is what we need right now. We need to remember that we are called to such a time as this. We are called to Rise Up. We are called to shape this spirituality for resistance together. Luckily, the work has already begun.

A very talented group of people — led by my editor at New Sacred — imagined this 52-week devotional for those of us that hope to rise up from the election, rise up from racism, rise up from the division and hate and do the real work that creates change. In their creative scheming, I got to remember why activism matters to me and why it has always been a part of my ministry and my faith. I contributed three devotions including Hope is a Verb, Come By Here and because my justice seeking has a teeny tiny bit of rage What Am I to Do with my Anger?

I have yet to get my copy of this amazing devotional and the t-shirt but as I’m still without an address for a few more weeks, I have to wait. You shouldn’t wait though. You should go ahead and order your own personal copy for $11.95 or better yet get a pack of five devotionals for $35.00.

I wrote thinking that these words would be used in one’s personal devotion before venturing out to a protest for Black Lives Matter or for any other act of resistance. I imagined myself needing to read such words after leaving a meeting that made me question why I bother since the meeting did more to frustrate than inspire, but the more that I think about it I think it would be better to read this with other people.

Rise Up recognizes that this is exhausting work and it is work that cannot be done alone. It requires something that will ignite us and spur us on and maybe that is best heard in each others voices. Here are just a few ideas.

  • Share one devotion each week at the beginning of that weekly conference call of justice seekers that you’re already participating in
  • Open and close your monthly mission committee meeting at church with these devotions (which would cover your prayers for the next two years)
  • Feature Rise Up in your church newsletter and offer to stock the church office or church library with copies so that groups of advocates can gather and share these words
  • Gather a group of friends that want to be part of the resistance but are not sure where to start for food, your favorite beverage, study of a devotion and conversation on a weekly action to share

The possibilities are endless. Whatever you do to ignite your hope and faith to keep the resistance alive, I hope and pray that these words bless your good work for much more than one year.

Rise up, dear ones. Rise up.

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Back to Writing

When my beloved and I decided that we were going to do this thing, we were going to move across country and make a life together, I knew that I wouldn’t be in full time ministry anymore.

I would leave the church I was serving to an unknown future. I hoped that there would be opportunities for ministry and there has. I’ve been so very lucky. Thus far, we’ve moved twice and ministry opportunities have appeared. I was blessed to serve as an interim pastor in a lovely little church in Pennsylvania and then when we moved to Kansas I got lucky again. I was thrilled to continue my work as an interim with a twist. I got to partner with a wonderful church on the brink of a huge transition as their consultant. I loved every single moment of both of these opportunities so much so that I kinda sorta stopped writing.

When my beloved and I started this adventure two years ago, he encouraged me to think of this time as a sabbatical. I didn’t need to work, he said. I could write the book that I’ve dreamed of writing for years and years.

I loved him for saying it and put my butt in the chair each and every day to write. Or at least, I would attempt to write. I would also get frustrated and confused and wonder if I had anything worthwhile to say. I’d distract myself with building a platform and then by taking another gander at the proposal I might send to a publisher that maybe might publish this labor of love. I’d write an essay here and there. I even published a few of them. I published more than a few actually. And then, I somehow stopped working on the book.

I got excited about other things. I just plain old stopped writing. I made a whole bunch of excuses to myself and never breathed a word about it to anyone else. I didn’t dare. I was too embarrassed.

Well, that’s all over. I declare my shame. I confess my vulnerability and share the news that I started writing again. It was just one day last week that I sat down to write but I wrote nearly two thousand words and I want to keep going. So, today, I’m in an airport trying to write even more words and pausing for only a moment to ask for your help.

Here’s the thing about writing that anyone who attempts to pen sermons, liturgies, poems, essays or books will say: it’s hard work. What’s more: it’s really lonely. It’s easy to get stuck in your head and think that none of it matters but the thing about using words is that there is always something important to say. That’s why writers feel called to write. It’s why I want to write. I feel like I have something worth saying and I’ll admit that I’m a bit shy about sharing that whole idea right now but even so, I could really use a cheerleader or two.

This is where I need your help. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter or even if you simply add a comment here on my blog, I would love to hear words of encouragement. I’d love your support as I try to put these words on a page and step back into writing in the hope that I might get to publish this labor of love.

It would mean the world to me.

Everything is New

Last week, I had an interview with a church seeking an interim pastor. I knew what would happen even before that meeting. I knew it because it’s what always happens. As I sat there talking to these faith-filled, hopeful people, I came to love them. It wasn’t even a slow progression. It basically walloped me from the moment I said “hello” on the church’s steps.

Love is where ministry starts. It has to start with love because there is no way that we can say and do hard things without love. So I’m glad it’s there and I’m grateful for the people who have shown me this love both as a pastor and a fellow disciple. So it happened again. They told me their story and I loved them even more. My smile broadened. My cheeks hurt as I got in my car to drive home. But, it was then that I was able to admit something to myself that I hadn’t allowed myself to believe yet.

I couldn’t believe it because I could only hear that question that I didn’t know how to answer: So, what are you doing with yourself now? It’s a question that has been asked all summer by friends and family. Ever since people found out that my husband and I were moving to Kansas, they’ve wanted to know what church I’ll be serving and where. And then, when I told them that it wasn’t likely that I would get to serve a church in the very short time that we’d be here, they’ve furrowed their brows and asked: So what are you going to do then?

I haven’t felt like I had an answer to this question. I have really, really wanted an answer to this question but I haven’t had one. I wasn’t sure.

And then, I met with this church to talk about their past and present. I dared to imagine how I could be their interim pastor and realize that I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it. They are lovely people and I really wanted to help them. I knew I could help them but sitting in my car on the drive home was the first time I asked myself what I wanted from these four months. What was it that I wanted? What was it that I needed?

The first thought was honestly that this summer sucked. It was a good time with my dear friend Corey and I’m so glad to have strengthen our bond these many years after college, but it was also the first three months of my married life. And I was in Pennsylvania while he was in Kansas. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. It sucked. We’ve done long distance and the military will probably require us to do it again but we chose it this time. I chose it because I wanted to have something on my resume for a year. That sounds callous, but it’s true. Just as callous and true as it felt to withdraw my name from this lovely congregation’s search for an interim pastor, but that is what I did yesterday. And it is right. It is good.

Over a year ago, I blogged about starting over again. I’ve started and restarted and tried to understand what God is calling me to now when everything is so new. I’ve been at this a year and still everything feels so new.

The apostle imagines this is a blessing to the church in Corinth, saying unto them, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17, CEB). I am a bit uncertain about the blessing bit but new things have arrived. That much is true. New things continue to surprise me. I am not choosing a pulpit but I am choosing my marriage.

I don’t know if I’ll get this time again but if we can swing it, I want to be around on weekends. I don’t want to be away from him in his downtime. I want to be here. I’m choosing  that, but I’m choosing much more than that as anyone that has ever asked me “So what are you doing now?” knows well. I am trying to be a new creation in this new season of life. I  am choosing my marriage but not just my marriage.

img_1648I’m choosing writing. I’m trying to carve out time for the writing process even daring to wade into the National Novel Writing Month tomorrow. I won’t be writing a novel. I’ll be continuing to write this memoir of my own grief and loss that keeps changing every time I sit down to write it. There are other things I’m writing too and much more that I would like to write.

I’m choosing a new path in spiritual direction. I am honored to have been accepted just last month to the San Francisco Theological Seminary to delve into their certificate program in spiritual direction. I start in January. The check is in the mail.  I’m nervous and excited but that is how it is with new things. And right now, everything feels new.

I’m choosing new things — wonderful things — but everything is so very new.

 

Premonitions of Grief

Yesterday, another United Church of Christ pastor dared to ask a group of her colleagues and friends if we share in her experience of receiving premonitions. Stories bubbled up from within this trusted circle as much as they bubbled up in me.

I have had writer’s block. I have struggled every day this week to try to get words down on the page. Nothing has come. Or, at least, nothing has come easily. Last week, I turned my attention to this particular memory from my young adulthood. It is a story of a premonition.

The details are sketchy but I remember the feeling. I always remember the feeling. I’m sitting on my bed. I’m doing my homework. There are mounds of books and looseleaf binders surrounding me so much so that I can’t really see the pink bedspread I know lies beneath. I am tired and I really want to shake the books and binders off the bed and crawl into bed. But, I have a math test. (Or maybe that’s a detail I’m making up. Maybe it’s just because I always did my homework. I tried so hard to be the good student.) It’s not late. I shouldn’t be so tired or bored, but I am. I think I am.

The phone rings. But, ever the good girl, I do not rush down the hall. I don’t go answer the phone. I follow the rules and wait until someone calls up the stairs to say it’s for me. Of course, I know it is for me. I’m certain of it. I have no words for it but I know exactly who it was. I know it’s for me.

Finally, the call comes up the stairs confirming what I already know. My feet pad down the hall bouncing off the plush carpet. I pick up the receiver and I hear her say, “Hi!”

It is Lauren. She has some question about math, something she thinks I can help answer but I can’t say anything. I’m gasping for air. I’m sputtering tears until Lauren asks, “Elsa, what’s the matter?… Elsa, are you there?”

“I thought you were my mom. I thought my mom was calling.”

She is quiet as my sobs only get louder. “Do you need to go?” she asks.

I apologize. I say I’ll talk to her tomorrow. I say something about how stupid it is to think that my mom would be calling. She’d died ten years before. Of course, she could not call. She would not call but it felt so clear. I was so certain.

It wouldn’t be long before the phone would ring again. That same familiar feeling would wake me up from my slumber. It is Good Friday. The red numbers on my alarm clock indicate that it is very early. It is still dark. Still, the phone rings.

I hear the gruff barking of my Dad down the hall. He does not say much, grunts more than speaks. Maybe because he is so tired. Maybe because he does not know what to say. It is finished. I hear the phone return to its receiver. The hall light flashes on and I hear Dad’s heavy steps weigh down the plush carpet in the hall.

I know what he will say even before he opens the door. It had been in my dreams. She had died. Gam had died. It didn’t matter how long she’d battled cancer or how weak she had become. I wouldn’t be able to tell those signs for many years. But before Dad opened the door to whisper the news, before light flooded my bedroom, I knew Gam had died.

There’s probably a third story in there somewhere. Probably a fourth and fifth too, but these are the first premonitions of my grief. The first phone call marked a moment in time. When I retreated under my pink bedspread, it was then that I realized that I wouldn’t even recognize the sound of her voice. It had been ten years since I had heard her or seen her. It had been ten years since I had taken in her smell. I had forgotten her and I still don’t know how to make sense of that.

I don’t know how to talk about the shift that happened in the moment. How much I tried to find her. How I searched for those cassette tapes of bedtimes stories she had recorded while she was in the hospital. How I lamented ever doing laundry so that her clothes now smelled more like me than her. How much I couldn’t stand the stories that were told to me about my mom. I had forgotten her and no one else could fill in the blanks. I still missed her. I still wished for another ending, for any alternative to cancer’s victory. But, I no longer grieved her but the idea of her. I don’t want that to be true. I’m trying to write some thing else but it seems like this is the truth.

Still, there’s something strange there. It’s what my colleague in ministry wondered yesterday. We get these premonitions that someone is sick or someone needs a visit. We send notes in the mail and through cyberspace to say we’re just thinking of you. It’s something that love does. I don’t mean for it to sound trite. It’s why I am struggling to type the words into my manuscript. It’s sounds like drivel, except that I don’t believe that it is. There’s something about that connection we share that extends beyond the grave. Something about love changes us. It puts us into greater communion. It orients us toward each other’s wants and needs. It connects us even when it doesn’t make any logical sense.

The No Plan Plan

I don’t get to my home church very much. In fact, I’vbe-the-churche only been for worship twice in the past year. Once was my first official visit. The next Sunday I joined as a member. Since then, I’ve been busy on Sunday mornings preaching in another congregation.

Still, I love my home church. I’m proud to be a member of this tribe that is seeking to be the church in so many bold ways.

I want to help. I want to be connected even if I can’t get to worship on Sunday. So, when it was requested that members sign up to write for the newsletter while our pastor in on a much-needed vacation, I said yes.

Yes, I will write about how I’m learning about faith right now. Yes, I’ll say something about this crazy move in which I find myself. Yes, I’ll write about The No Plan Plan. It goes like this:

I am surrounded by boxes. Two months ago, everything I own was packed up by strangers, loaded upon a truck and transported to our next home in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Just three months ago, my beloved and I celebrated our marriage. It was wonderful. It was everything you could ever hope that such a blessing could be but after that epic celebration, we have been surrounded by boxes and bags.

Read the whole reflection on Old First Reformed UCC’s website.

What is the Meaning of Life?

I’m working on my first chapter. Or I’m trying to work on this first chapter. I’m trying to stick with it. I’m trying to actually finish it rather than jumping ahead to some other chapter that is not quite so hard. For this is the chapter that frames the entire thing. It’s the bit that explains the focus and I can’t help but feel anything but focused.

Every bit of writing, I know, is at attempt to answer some big question. It’s what every novel does. It is what every story answers. There is some question that was so irritating that the writer had to sit down and try to answer it. The problem, it seems, is that I have too many questions. Way too many questions.

Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a young poet that he should have patience. Instead of wrestling and battling for answers, he told the poet to love the questions. He advised,

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

As I try to focus my thoughts and actually write this stupid chapter so that everything can fall into place (if that is even what might happen), it dawns on me that it’s these questions that I bring into my ministry all of the time. This is not exactly a recipe for ministry but one of those moments where those questions became more than something written on a page. It actually showed up in my ministry.

Two months ago, as the church began to take steps toward imagining its mission, I asked the members of the Consistory to read New Questions for a New Day. In that meeting, we had just articulated the goals for the church moving forward. Before moving onto other business, I asked these leaders to lift up the questions that they are still carrying. With a nod from Jeffrey Jones, I asked them to reframe their questions as new questions. Their list included:

  • How do we spread the love?
  • How do we all reach out in prayer to find inspiration?
  • How do we motivate each other?
  • How do we help people have meaningful and transformational experiences in the church?
  • Where is God in this confusing journey we are on? What does God want?
  • How do we help others expand their family through friendship?
  • What is the meaning of life?

The church is working on writing their mission. I’m trying to write my first chapter but we’re both trying to answer that last question. It’s the question and I don’t know the answer. It’s way too big for any one book or the mission of any local church. That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to write it. It’s what both the church and I are trying to do. God bless us.

A Blasphemous Question Just For You

Before I officially became Mrs. Cook, I went to a writing conference. This is, of course, what everyone does in the last few days before they get married, right? They go to a four-day conference. Well, it’s what I did.

Before we hopped on a plane and flew off to get hitched, I went to the Frederick Buechner Writer’s Workshop at Princeton Theological Seminary where I got all kinds of wonderful insight and advice from Philip Yancey, Jonathan Merritt, Jeff Chu and Kathleen Norris. As you may know, I’ve been writing a book. I’ve been staring at a blinking cursor for a really long time and let’s just say it’s a slow process.

It’s a really slow process. And then, on the very last day of this conference I heard Kathleen Norris say, “people of faith are afraid to encounter what they presume to be blasphemous — and so we are quick to cut down what makes us uncomfortable.” I may be misquoting her but that’s what I have written in my notebook. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. She just described my whole writing process. I have been afraid to put down the words because I’m afraid that I’ll be labeled a heretic. I don’t want that label. I might be one but I don’t really want the label stamped on my forehead. Or worse, on whatever published work I might offer the world.

Jeff Chu said something the day before that I was still thinking about. He said, and again I might be misquoting, “we are never ever telling one narrative, but it is always a weaving of different stories.” It was then that I realized that I’m writing a memoir. I’m weaving my stories with other stories in a first person narrative of my own grief. They say to write what you know. Well, this is what I know.

I am writing every day. I put my butt in the chair and try to get down 1,000 new words every day. Or almost every day. But, I have a terrible time with editing. I want to reread what I’ve written and I get lost in my edits. This is made worse by the fact that I have realized that it’s a memoir. And so, the whole voice has changed. Everything needs to be rewritten! Ah!

What I want to share with you is a snippet of this work in progress but I learned at said writing conference that blog posts really shouldn’t be that long. Blog posts should only be 750 words. So perhaps I’ll save that for another day. Today, instead, I want to ask you something. I want to ask you about something I heard Krista Tippett say yesterday. On my way home from a meeting, I listened to OnBeing and heard Krista say this:

There is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong, right? Perfection can be a goal, but it’s never a destination. And this has given rise across history to the whole theodicy debate. If there — how could there be a good God, or how could the universe, the balance of the universe be good when there’s so much suffering? And so that question is there and it’s real, and reasonable.

But then there is also this paradox that we are so often made by what would break us. And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary, because this is the place in life that says — that honors the fact that there’s darkness — but also says “And you can find meaning right there,” right? Not — it’s not overcoming it. It’s not beyond it. It’s not in spite of it. What goes wrong doesn’t have to define us but, I mean, again, to come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it, it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes or the like, the huge and the ordinary losses of any life, who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed. Not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.

What do you think? Is that true? That’s the big blasphemous question because I’m realizing I need to hear your story as much as I need to write my own. Jeff Chu is right. It’s never just one story. Moreover, right there — in hearing those words — that is where my imposter syndrome shows up. There it is announcing that I am not actually whole and healed. I have so long defined myself by this hard thing, this grief. I’ve felt it was who I was, who I am. So, I want to know: does your grief define you? Or are you wise enough to have integrated this grief as Krista suggests? I hope you’ll share your wisdom with me.

 

Blinking Cursor

“Keep your butt in the chair. You do it at the same time every day. You never wait for inspiration — it’s ridiculous, it will never come. No one in your family is going to hope for you to be a writer… it’s not convenient for anybody for you to write, and you have to do it badly.”

So says Anne Lamott in her beloved book Bird by Bird.

I must admit that I didn’t like her book. I didn’t find much encouragement from this beloved writer in these pages. I preferred the words of Stephen King that I read last year when I couldn’t write. Even when I couldn’t write and believed I didn’t have anything worthwhile to say, King convinced me of his love for the craft. It’s something I missed in the pages of Bird by Bird. There were genuine pearls of which I remind myself every time I put my butt in the chair. I need to write some shitty first drafts and eat my broccoli.

But, most of the time, I just stare at my blinking cursor.

Yesterday I actually managed to do it. I put my butt in the chair and I wrote. I didn’t heed another of Lamott’s bits of wisdom. I didn’t write something completely new. I rewrote something I’d written way back when when I began this project. As you might already know, I’m writing a book. I’ve talked about it a whole lot but now I’m actually doing it. I’m writing about the thing I know best. I’m trying as hard as I can to tell the truth. But really, more often than not, I’m just trying to put my butt in the chair.

I don’t succeed most days. Earlier this week, for two consecutive days, I convinced myself that it was more important to write other things. I wrote something for New Sacred only to get an email from my editor after submitting it. It was incoherent, she told me. I attempted to edit it but I just stared at the blinking cursor.

Then, I gave up and clicked over to the other tab containing my sermon for Sunday which I was convinced was also incoherent and let’s be honest. Most of what I’ve written for this book is incoherent. It is gobbledygook. It is not intelligible and I shudder at the mere idea of sharing it with anyone acquainted with the English language, but I’m writing. I’m making slow and steady progress toward realizing this dream because I’ve always dreamed of writing a book. I’ve always wished I had the discipline. I always wished I had something brilliant and true to say. I’m still not sure that I have any of those things but I’m writing.

Or, at least, I am staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen.

Each and every day, I think about the blinking cursor even when I’m not sitting at my laptop. I think about it at the gym and in the grocery store or while I’m reading something brilliant that someone else wrote. And lemme just say: there are lots of people who have written amazing things and sometimes I read their words and think I should never, ever put my butt in the chair. What could I possibly add? But, then, I remember that I love writing. I love writing for reasons I can’t even express so I sit down again just as I did today. I put my butt in the chair and try to make that stupid blinking cursor dance.