Monday, December 3, 2012

Rooted & Established in Love

So, I knew going into the Anglican experience I wanted some prayer beads. I mean, Rebekah had some lovely ones she just received from Amanda at Love is a Seed, and Heather has me all prayer bead inspired since she’s been researching different variations. I’ve made a rosary for my Catholic father in the past, and some strings of remembrance prayer beads for my mom and aunts recently when my grandfather passed away.

My father’s piece was made with a patron saints medal of his I’ve had since I was a child, and I used green glass beads, Celtic knot spacers and a Celtic cross. I loved that medal, but never felt appropriate wearing it, seeing as the back was inscribed with “I am Catholic, in case of emergency notify a priest.” I was very pleased with how it turned out and thought about making a similar one for myself, but never did.

For my mother and aunts, I did a simple five bead strand with an acorn charm at the end. The beads were turquoise and the acorn a copper color, both elements that remind me of my grandfather. The acorn was a symbol that had come to mean much to them as they sat vigil bedside of their father, and I wanted that to signify that these beads were for them to hold and touch and pray in memory of him.

As soon as I decided I wanted a set of prayer beads for this liturgical year, it didn’t take me long to select my beads. What was harder was choosing the drop. Yes, I know a cross is the logical and traditional choice, but I have a quirky hang up about a “cross-centered” life. Besides, anyone who’s heard me teach will tell you I like post-resurrection Jesus best, but a loaf of bread just seemed to lack the pizazz needed for a focal piece. I needed something that would be meaningful to me, meaningful to how the story of scripture speaks to me, meaningful to my life in the Spirit.

A tree.

That’s it! It’s perfect! A yin-yang symbol of my Christian walk if there ever was one. Shadow and light. Doubt and faith. Hesitation and trust.

I actually wear a tree on my finger already, and I love to tell the story of how my philosophy professor once demanded I no longer ask questions about the tree in the garden – not that he didn’t want me to ask questions, he just wanted me to move on to something else. But that damn tree plagues me to this day (that’s a post for another day, probably along with further explanation of the cross-centered hullabaloo).

But the tree is not just something that raises questions for me (like, why DID Jesus curse that poor fig tree?), but also a beautiful symbol of life in the Spirit. The tree is a symbol of a rooted, abiding life – a life that bears the fruit of the Spirit, the same fruit that has nourished us, we offer to others. I think of family trees, and the genealogy of Jesus, the women and men whose stories come together to form the body of Christ, and the stories those of us grafted in bring. The trees will clap their hands with the joyful song of creation when redemption is fulfilled (I suspect they already are).

With my design plans set on the back burner to simmer, I slid into the back of St. Michael’s sanctuary on the first Sunday of Advent, and quickly spotted friends to sit with. I settled in, and gazed forward toward the altar. My eyes were immediately drawn behind the altar, beyond the center of the room, to the looming focal piece of the space – a large picture window, opening up the sanctuary to the beauty outside.


And I realized, in that moment, that I will spend this journey not only experiencing the liturgical seasons within the sanctuary, but watching nature’s seasons change the trees just beyond. Every time I take the elements among this gathering of the body, it will be kneeling near trees that are journeying through their yearly process of renewal, of change, of death and burial and resurrection, of ordinary days before it all starts again.

The sermon (homily? I’ve got to get the terminology down…) focused on the life that exists in the transitions, the growth that occurs during those times we feel least in control of our lives. (Here’s a link to one of the stories that was shared:

It was inspired by the Gospel reading of Luke 21:25-36:
“Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

The kingdom that was and is and is to come, the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, is evident in the changing of the seasons: death and resurrection, suffering and reconciliation, uncertainty and wisdom.

Changing seasons can leave us feeling unsettled, like we can’t see the forest for the trees (see what I did there?). But when we can keep our focus on the big picture story, we know that changing seasons is part of nature, it’s part of the story of creation, it happens… and it happens again… and it happens again. Each time we transition through a cycle of life, we grow, we strengthen, we renew.

We experience resurrection, again and again and again – to new life, and new experiences, and new perspectives. Every time we’re convince we have God figured out, we see his plan for our lives clearly, change enters in, and the Creator asks us once again to open our hands, to open our hearts, and to release. We release our grip of control, and we raise our hands to hopeful trust.

And we wait.

We wait for new birth. We wait for new growth. We wait for the beauty of redemption.

We wait with trepidation, and the angels whisper “Do not fear.”

We wait with eager anticipation.

We wait with uncertainty.

We wait with hope.

We wait.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

~ On the Eve of Advent ~

(disclaimer: This is a long one. I ramble. You may want a cup of coffee…)

So, I think I’m going to be visiting my friends over at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.

I’ve long held a curiosity for the Episcopal Church.

My early background was a mixture of Catholicism and Agnosticism, with a healthy dose of neighborhood Vacation Bible School, but in my first year of high school I voluntarily converted to Christianity under the umbrella of the Southern Baptist Convention.

I didn’t know the term “evangelical,” but I was a good one. I wasn’t big on the persuasive nature of “witnessing,” but I was a quick learner and I could have a good religious discussion with the best of ‘em. I even knew which practices were biblical, and which Bible was biblical, too.

I remember my senior home room/physics teacher, aptly named Mr. Picard, giving me a good natured ribbing about the Bible I kept in my backpack. Something about the translation…? I mean, come on – it was NEW King James. What did he want me to use, The Living Bible? That wasn’t even the real words. There was a junior in an upper-level math class across the hall who would come over and hang around me (we assumed a crush) during home period, while I was busy sitting on the desktop, eating breakfast and lusting after a young Anderson Cooper on Channel One. I repeatedly asked Mr. Picard if he would make the guy leave (sure I thought he was adorable, but come on – he was a JUNIOR), but his answer was always the same: “Nah, you need a good Episcopalian boy…”

I didn’t really know what that meant, except that perhaps he thought this boy would turn me on to a liberal translation of scripture, and that was somehow a good thing in his eyes. But I knew the right path, and I would not be swayed.

As a sociology and philosophy major at a Southern Baptist University (this is that “right path” I was talking about), I was subjected to a scandalous viewing of the PBS documentary adaptation of Randall Balmer’s book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. This is probably around the time I first began to pay attention to, and develop an understanding of, the term “evangelical.” It was also around the time I began to look at my own spiritual practices and beliefs through an external lense.

A lot of what Balmer examined and/or questioned resonated with me. What confused me, however, was his personal conversion. Balmer had left the evangelical subculture for the Episcopal Church. What the what? Why on earth would you want to pick a denomination with MORE rules? I mean, no one tells Baptist when to sit or stand… well, except the music minister, but that doesn’t really count… and no one makes us kneel. Raising our hands in worship is controversial enough, could you imagine if someone crossed themselves during prayer?! And they recite the same stuff – evangelicals pray their own words from the heart, as they feel led by the Spirit. Episcopalians just say stuff someone else has already written for them.

Sometime post-college, post-failed-grad-school-attempt (I never got around to writing that whole thesis thing) and while helping with a non-denominational church plant, I stumbled upon a book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble that seemed to call to me: Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God. I had actually left my SBC Church and signed on the church plant after several frustrating years of experiencing “singles ministry.” Apparently, single Southern Baptists are only interested in two things: sex and marriage. Singles Sunday School classes are thus obligated to teach about two things: how to avoid sex and how to pursue marriage. I had become really interested in folks like Richard Foster and stuff like spiritual disciplines, and I voiced this repeatedly in leadership meetings, clearly not understanding what was best for me and my life. In the end, I grew weary, so when an opportunity to serve a new and growing congregation presented itself, I cautiously climbed aboard.

So I’m staring at the cover of this book, and I’m reading about a single girl and her spiritual practices and her intellectual pursuits and her love of God – it was a no-brainer purchase. I devoured Girl Meets God. I may have even had to replace my pen midway through from all the underlining and margin notes. Her journey may have had a different starting point, but I was really intrigued with where she ended up. For once the Episcopal Church took on a glimmer of beauty, awe and reverence I had not been exposed to in my other meager encounters. I began to appreciate the rhythm of the liturgy, the rootedness of the history, the sacredness of the ritual.

Slowly, as I matured, I began to recognize the increasing influence of Episcopalians in my life. I actually held an office, when I was in social work, on the third floor of a large, downtown Episcopal church. Two of the authors who both challenge and comfort me, practice the Episcopal faith, Phyllis Tickle (who has been an influence both in spiritual practices and, in more recent years, understanding my place in an emerging perspective of Christianity) and the late Madeleine L’Engle (whose writing, both fiction and non-fiction, has had such an impact on my life that I refer to her as my patron saint). I have also been blessed by Episcopalian friends and mentors, and spent more time in liturgical settings.

As I’ve found myself recently at a crossroads of congregational life, I’ve begun to take a more serious look at the Episcopal Church. Several years ago I left the church plant I had been a part of after some negative experiences with leadership there. I actually went through a period of being shell-shocked and found it difficult to attend anywhere, and was completely outside of church for about six months. I found a beautiful community, R Street Community Church (formerly Vineyard) that welcomed me, and my hesitations, and rooted myself there (though there seemed to be constant change around me as the community went through layers of transitions). It is R Street that prayed with me as I stepped into a roll of co-pastoring at Eikon Church, a community I had been connected with for some time. I knew going in that Eikon was in a stage of transition, and transition eventually led toward dissolution. As painful as walking through that process with a community was, I would not trade it for the world – there was a lot of learning, a lot of beauty, a lot of growth in that experience.

I placed no timeline on myself to plug in to another community, to make any decisions about my faith practice. Honestly, I figured it would be late March before I even began to think about what I might do. Though I love the R Street Community, I was feeling I might need to be somewhere where I can just kind of blend in for a bit… IF I ended up anywhere. But, as Advent has inched closer, I felt like I wanted to participate in the rhythm of the liturgy for the first season of the church year. And as I began to think about settling into one community for that season, I felt the pull to participate in the rhythm of the liturgy for a whole church year.

What if I let myself rest somewhere for a full cycle of the liturgical year, just listen and be for a bit, rather than lead and do?

Wouldn’t it make sense to do this somewhere steeped in the rhythm and the history? Wouldn’t it make sense to do this somewhere with familiar faces, with people who have already extended a welcome to come join them? Wouldn’t it make sense to do this with people who’ve already heard most of my questions and wacky ideas yet aren’t phased in the least by them? St. Michael’s is home to people who already speak into my life, who inspire me, who encourage me. I don’t have to make any decisions about becoming permanently rooted in this place, though the opportunity is certainly there. I could just "stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is.” I could try and walk in it. I could find rest for my soul. At least for one cycle of seasons...